Nest Finding and Pullus Ringing: Tuesday, 29th May 2018

One thing I firmly believe is that life is a continuous learning experience and today was a superb lesson for me.  I have a pullus ringing endorsement for birds that nest in holes and boxes, plus Swallows, but I don’t have an endorsement for ringing open nest birds. I have done some under supervision but few warbler or finch species. The BTO have given me a target to attain for them to give me the open nest endorsement.

My friend Jack Daw is one of the most experienced nest finders and pullus ringers in the world, having focused entirely on them for most of his independent ringing activities.  His entire summer is focused on nest surveying.  We know each other through my ringing sessions at Tedworth House, where he is on the staff and helps out with my setting up of a morning.  He kindly offered to take me with him on some of his survey sessions, to give me the relevant experience. The first of these sessions was this morning.

We met in Tidworth and the first stop was to a small wood at the south east corner of the town, where Jack has been monitoring a Blackcap nest. On checking the nest there were two pulli (a small clutch) ready to be ringed: which I duly did.

Our next stop was on SPTA, where we went to have a look at a number of nests: Blackbird (predated); Bullfinch (too young to ring); Blackcap (too old, couldn’t safely be handled without them deserting the nest); Whitethroat (eggs) and then to a Chaffinch nest where we ringed 5 healthy youngsters.  This was followed by another Whitethroat nest, where there was another good crop of 5 youngsters able to be ringed.

After a brief detour to have a look at a superb piece of vetch-covered land, where we were treated to good numbers of Adonis Blue and one lonely Grizzled Skipper, we crossed to the other side of the A338, to an extensive piece of Hawthorn scrub on the side of a chalk bank.  This habitat is becoming scarcer on Salisbury Plain, as the Chalk Grasslands Restoration project is implemented without consideration for the many species that need areas of scrub to nest in.  There is no point in developing a fantastic foraging habitat for Linnets, Yellowhammers, Corn Buntings, etc. if you don’t leave them anywhere to nest.  Some people think that conservation is an apolitical end in itself: it is not, conservation is entirely political and, unless we win the political battle, so much of our wildlife and countryside will continue to decline.

Within the Hawthorn scrub we visited over a dozen nests: many Linnets had already fledged their first broods.  One had five eggs in it, but they were cold and the nest had clearly been deserted.  Perhaps recent bad weather or predation had removed one or both of the parent birds.  Several of the nests had young ready for ringing, and I ringed four broods of Linnet: one brood of 3 and three broods of 4. One of the youngsters in one of the 4-strong broods was too small to ring, so it was put back without.

During this part of our walk, Jack found two Yellowhammer nests, each with eggs, within 5 feet of each other and a Dunnock nest, also with eggs.

So, what did I learn today? What a privilege it is to be a ringer.  Practically, I learnt where to look for nests; how to approach a nest safely, without making obvious tracks, and without leading predators to the nest; how to find a nest; how to examine it without damaging the nest or its contents; how to cover your tracks on leaving, so the nest is left safe; and, importantly, what stage it is safe to ring the pulli at, and when they have gone past that point (i.e. so they don’t flee the nest before they are ready).  Jack is a great example and, although he won’t admit it, an excellent teacher.


Lower Moor Farm, CES3: Monday, 28th May 2018

With the weekend being a washout, and all of this week being predicted to be wet, we took advantage of the good forecast for Monday to get out and do CES 3.  I was joined for the session by Jonny and our latest recruit, Luke Osman.  As the three of us, and my nets, had got soaked in a truncated session at the Firs on Friday, Luke’s first session, I was impressed that he came back for more.

We were eaten alive by mosquitoes whilst putting up the nets along the heronry ride, and so doused ourselves in citronella, which helped make the rest of the session bearable.  As has been the case reported from all around the country, our CES numbers are well down on last year.  This is almost certainly down to the late arrival of summer migrants, as mentioned on Springwatch on Monday evening’s screening.

The list for the day was: Treecreeper (1); Great Tit (1); Long-tailed Tit 1; Wren (1); Dunnock 1(2); Robin 1; Song Thrush 2(1); Blackbird 1(2); Blackcap 1; Garden Warbler 2;  Whitethroat 1; Lesser Whitethroat 1; Chiffchaff (2); Bullfinch (1); House Sparrow 2; Reed Bunting (1).  Totals: 13 birds ringed from 10 species and 12 birds recaptured from 9 species, making 25 birds processed from 16 species. The proportion of retrapped birds is 48%.

The catch included our first newly-fledged Dunnock and Robin of the year.  It also included a Whitethroat, carrying an unwelcome visitor:

Whitethroat and tick

Not my best photograph but the large grey blob is a tick.  Most ringers carry a pair of needle forceps or a tick removing tool in their kit for just such an eventuality.  I removed it, made sure the wound was clean and released the bird unburdened by a blood-sucking parasite.

Various: Wednesday, 16th to Saturday, 19th May 2018

I would not have expected to be out for three sessions, get fewer than 60 birds, but have a thoroughly enjoyable time.  On Wednesday I did my monthly session at Tedworth House.  Andrew Bray joined me for the morning: I am sure it is the lure of bacon sandwiches, supplied by the estimable Dave Turner of the Wildlife Trust, that is the principal reason, but all help is welcome, whatever the motivation.  The catch was not large but there was some interest as well.  One thing we noticed straight away was that there were still quite large groups of Goldfinch flying around – and we caught our fair share.  It is really surprising that they haven’t split up by now. It is a funny year.

The list for the day was: Great Tit (1); Wren 1; Robin 1; Song Thrush (1); Blackbird 2(2); Blackcap 2; Goldfinch 3. Totals: 9 birds ringed from 5 species; 4 birds retrapped from 3 species, making 13 birds processed from 7 species.

One of the retrapped Blackbirds was a juvenile ringed in the nest by Jack Daw.  It is the first juvenile Blackbird I have seen so far this year.  Throughout the morning,  we could hear the Raven chick calling, the noise getting louder and more raucous as one of the parents arrived with food for it.  The consensus is that there is a single chick this year, with the cold spell arriving at just the wrong time for the breeding pair.

On Friday I decided to have a go at the eastern perimeter track at Blakehill Farm. We don’t work out on the plateau during the breeding season, particularly so we don’t disturb any Curlew attempting to breed there, but the hedgerow along the perimeter track is fair game.  It had been a bit like a bird desert over the winter, after it was severely cut back in the late autumn, but it has now come into leaf and looks fantastic.  Robin Griffiths told me that he had seen Linnets and Reed Buntings in good numbers along the track, so I thought I would give it a go.  As I didn’t want to bring anyone along to sit and look at empty nets, I decided to go solo.  I set up six net sets of 2 x 18 metre nets each, covering about 250 metres of the hedgerow. It is not often you can get a pretty accurate picture of how far you walk while ringing, but having done the walk there and back 15 times over just under five hours, that’s a good 7.5 km covered.  Every net caught, which is a bonus, but they didn’t catch a lot.  However, it was an interesting catch as I, finally, caught a few Whitethroat.  Four were ringed but one managed to escape the net just as I got to it.  I caught some Reed Buntings but no Linnets.

The list for the session was: Dunnock 1; Robin 2; Blackbird 1(2); Whitethroat 4; Chaffinch 2; House Sparrow 1; Reed Bunting 2(1).  Totals: 13 birds ringed from 7 species; 3 birds retrapped from 2 species, making 16 birds processed from 7 species.

So to Saturday and CES session 2 at Lower Moor Farm. Unfortunately, none of my crew could make it so this was a second solo expedition in two days.  As a trainer, I ring very few birds when the team is around, as I am scribing, checking and helping the trainees, so it is quite different having time on my own. It was a super morning, with lots of people dropping by to see what I was doing: all good and supportive.  There was a group of four birders up from Norfolk who were delighted to see Blackcap and Dunnock up close.  As one of them said, you see it occasionally on the television but seeing it up close and personal brings a whole different dimension.

The list for the morning was: Green Woodpecker 1; Treecreeper 1; Long-tailed Tit (1); Wren (1); Dunnock (2); Song Thrush 2(1); Blackbird 1(2); Blackcap 2(1); Garden Warbler 1(1); Whitethroat 1(1); Chiffchaff 1(1); Bullfinch 3; Reed Bunting 2.  Totals: 15 birds ringed from 10 species; 11 birds retrapped from 9 species, making 26 birds processed from 13 species.

We are beginning to see juvenile birds in the catch. Song Thrush do start breeding early and the two birds ringed today were both fresh out of the nest.  I would not be surprised if they had fledged this morning.


More surprising though was a juvenile Treecreeper.  They take 30 days or so from the egg being laid until the young fledge, which means that these eggs were laid mid-April.  The earliest lay date (according to the BTO Bird Facts) is 5th April, but the average first lay date is the 27th April. It has been a funny year so far.

My favourite catch of the day was the Green Woodpecker.  It is astonishing how many of them we have caught at Lower Moor Farm. Over the last three years my team has caught 9 of them, 7 of which have been at Lower Moor Farm.  This was an adult male:


So, three sessions, no Blue Tits: I cannot remember the last time that happened.


Blakehill Farm: Saturday, 12th May 2018

With another day of sunshine and low winds forecast, we decided to get out of the woods and onto the farmland.  I was joined for the session by Steph and Jonny.  Prior to going off to set up the ringing I had a quick look at the Jackdaw nests near the Whitworth Building to see how they were progressing.  The Jackdaws were all away from the nest, so none were disturbed.  One of the nests was fully developed, lined and with eggs (three, warm), the others were just jumbles of sticks with no lining.  Perhaps the successful nesters won’t tolerate having neighbours?

During the summer we stay off the central plateau of Blakehill Farm, not wanting to (potentially) disturb nesting Curlew.  However, there are plenty of alternative areas on the west of the site.  The black outline is the area within which we set our nets:

blakehill west

In the photograph below the black lines show where we actually set the nets:

bhw nets

To be honest, we were guessing about where the best place to put them was. You never know whether a new area will deliver or not. On farmland at this time of year, unless you are feeding the area to attract birds in, they are spread out and large catches are unlikely.  In the event we were happy with the catch we had.

The highlight of the session was the addition of a further five Lesser Whitethroat to this year’s total, taking it to 11 so far.  This compares with just four by this time in 2017 and 2016, two in 2015, one in 2014 and none in 2013.


The list for the day was: Wren 2; Dunnock 3; Robin 1; Blackbird 4; Blackcap 1; Whitethroat 2; Lesser Whitethroat 5; Chiffchaff 2; Chaffinch 1; Goldfinch 2.  Total: 23 birds ringed from 10 species.  As this was the first ringing session in this part of the site the lack of any recaptures is not that surprising.  Perhaps what was surprising was the complete absence of any titmice in the catch.  I cannot remember even hearing any today.  We did hear a solitary Cuckoo male calling from the pond area.

There was a superb display of insect life flying around: mainly bumblebees and flies, plus this rather fabulous Downlooker Snipe Fly, Rhagio scolopaceus, that spent a good half-an-hour sitting on our ringing table:


Whilst clearing away the nets Steph noticed this fat fly sitting on some wet grass:


This is the Noon Fly, Mesembrina meridiana.

(wildlife photos courtesy of Steph Buggins, thanks to Marc Taylor for identifying the insects)

At the end of the session we checked the two Barn Owl boxes in Allotment and Poucher’s fields (I have a special licence to do so for this schedule 1 species).  The Allotment Field box held a solitary adult bird but a definite nest development; the Poucher’s Field box had a pair of Barn Owls and four warm eggs in the nest.

Brown’s Farm: Wednesday, 9th May 2018

With the weather being set fair for a low wind and dry, Jonny and I headed for Brown’s Farm.  It was a question of killing two birds with one stone: I hadn’t been able to do my early breeding bird survey for the site yet this year. We set the nets and I left Jonny to manage them whilst I carried out the BBS.

Last year, when the new tenant took over, one of the first tasks he took on was to cut the hedges back quite severely.  One year later on and they seem to be really bearing fruit.  As I walked my survey route, I was astonished at how many pairs of Yellowhammers there were flying up from the hedge as I passed.  The Skylarks are as abundant as ever and, as usual, there was a Cuckoo calling from the trees around the farm.

Jonny had the benefit of the majority of the ringing catch, whilst I was surveying.  We only caught 16 birds but the winter flocks have broken up and, now we are into the breeding season, no lures were used, so we weren’t expecting huge numbers.  The list was: Blue Tit 1; Great Tit 1; Dunnock 1; Blackbird 1; Whitethroat 3; Linnet 3; Yellowhammer 5(1). Totals: 15 birds ringed from 7 species and one retrap.

All birds were well into their breeding condition, except for the Yellowhammers.  They breed later than most of the other farmland species but usually produce two broods and, in a good year, three.


Ravensroost Coppice Project 1: Monday / Tuesday 7th & 8th May 2018

This is the sixth year of the project I have been running in Ravensroost Woods, with teh help of the team for the last three years, looking to see what impact, if any, the 8-year coppicing regime has on the birds using the area.  Exactly the same as with the BTO Constant Effort site, we set the same amount of net in the same places year on year so that the only difference is in what is happening with the coppice and the birds visiting the wood.  There are four areas within the coppice, all at different stages of the cycle, which are contrasted with another area that is managed but not coppiced.

On Monday I was joined by Jonny and Annie, and on Tuesday I worked solo (but with only 10 birds caught that day, I was hardly over-extended).  This is the downside of project work: you do it regardless of the result. The uncoppiced area has actually seen a regular decrease in birds caught over the years. I cannot be sure what the issue is but I suspect it is something as simple as the trees are six years taller and perhaps the birds are just overflying the nets. Who knows?

The list for the session was: Treecreeper 1(1); Blue Tit 4(2); Great Tit 1(3); Marsh Tit (1); Wren 1(1); Song Thrush 2; Blackbird 1; Blackcap 5(2); Garden Warbler 1(3); Chiffchaff 2(1); Bullfinch 2(1).  Totals: 20 birds ringed from 10 species; 15 birds retrapped from 9 species, making 35 birds processed from 11 species.  The proportion of retrapped birds in the catch was 42.9%.

The three retrapped Garden Warblers were all originally ringed in the coppiced area and retrapped there. One of them, D983204 was ringed as an adult in May 2014.  This bird has, therefore, made the trip to and from the rain-forests of the Congo six times: the 45,000 miles involved is just mind-boggling.  The newly ringed one was caught in the control area: only the second caught in that area, the first was caught there in 2014.

We also caught an already ringed Blackcap that was not on one of our rings. I submitted the records on Monday afternoon and by Tuesday afternoon I had heard back from the BTO.  It was ringed as a juvenile in Northamptonshire in September 2017 at the wonderfully named Boar’s Head Farm.  This is the beauty of the new on-line system for data entry.  In the past (and quite a few ringers are still living in the past) data was entered into an MS-Access database on your computer.  If you were a member of a ringing group, like the West Wilts Ringing group, you would save up your data until you felt there was sufficient to produce a submission file. You would then create the file and send it to the ringing group secretary.  The ringing group secretary would then wait until they decided they had enough records to warrant sending a submission to the BTO and produce a file.  There could be months between getting an exciting recapture and getting the details back, because of the built in inertia of that sort of system. Now, all ringers in the group enter their own data directly into the database assessment area. I get notification there are records waiting, check them and submit them – all without any files being transferred anywhere.  As a result, we get the results very quickly.  Ain’t technology wonderful?

Lower Moor Farm: CES1, Saturday, 5th May 2018

An excellent first Constant Effort Site session for 2018 at Lower Moor Farm (LMF). I was joined by Ellie and Jonny at 5:30, to get the nets set and ready, and we caught our first bird at 6:00. It will be interesting to see how this year’s catch compares with previous ones.  Over the winter two of the net rides have been widened, by the cutting in of “scallops” to open butterfly glades.  Whether this will have an impact on the bird catch only time will tell.  This first catch was a bit down on session 1 last year: primarily because we failed to catch any Willow Warblers or Chiffchaffs – despite there being several singing male Chiffchaffs in the immediate area.  However, last year was considerably down on the same session in 2015, although the final numbers were relatively close for both ringed and recaptured birds. We shall see how the season progresses.  That is the purpose of CES: to see how bird populations fluctuate over time within a relatively constant environment.

We had our first Whitethroat for the site for this year.  Hopefully it will be a better year for them at Lower Moor this year:  we only had one specimen there in the whole of last year.  At our session on the 21st April we did catch our first Garden Warbler of the year, a retrap ringed at LMF in 2016. This session we caught our first new Garden Warblers of the year, two of which were sporting quite obvious “pollen horns”:

2018_05_05 Garwa

The list for the session was: Blue Tit (2); Great Tit 1(1); Long-tailed Tit (1); Wren 1(2); Dunnock 3(2); Song Thrush 2; Blackbird 1; Blackcap 3(2); Garden Warbler 4; Whitethroat 1; Lesser Whitethroat 1; Goldcrest 1; Bullfinch (3).  Totals: 18 ringed from 10 species; 13 retrapped from seven species, making 31 processed from 13 species.

There were plenty of butterflies around, with several specimens of Orange Tip, Brimstone, Small White and Common Blue flying about the ringing site.  We were joined for a while by Neil Pullen, the Wildlife Trust’s reserves manager, and whilst we were discussing aspects of how we work with the Trust, he pointed out a solitary Holly Blue flying around.  With the cracking weather this morning, and interactions with a range of interested people, plus some excellent birds, it really was a very pleasant way to spend a morning, whilst contributing to the national data set.