Blackmoor Copse: Friday, 4th May 2018

Blackmoor Copse was the first ever nature reserve purchased by the, then newly-formed, Wiltshire Wildlife Trust in 1962.  It is not a site I would normally go to, being south-west of Salisbury and a 90 minute drive from home.  All of my sites bar two are within a 20 minute drive from my house: which is perfectly acceptable when you are getting to site for 5:30 (or earlier) in the summer.

The reason for my trip to this site was for the Well Being team.  Chelsie Phillips, who runs the Well Being scheme for the Wildlife Trust, has one group who are coming to the end of their time with the scheme, and they were keen to learn about bird ringing and see some birds close up.  As they were all based in the south of the county, Chelsie asked if I would carry out the session at Blackmoor Copse.  This site has never been ringed before: at least, the Trust have never given permission for it to be and I can find no records from there. Therefore, the first birds to be caught at Blackmoor Copse were a pair of Coal Tits, and the first ringed was the female:


There is always an issue with going to a site that you know nothing about: where to set your nets for a start.  I managed to get a brief look at the site yesterday, which gave me an idea of where to set them.  As I was working solo, I set up eight nets in four rides along the main paths, forming a cross.  Unfortunately, the catch did not match up to the effort put in, with just 11 birds hitting the nets, and only 10 of them staying put.  Collared Doves are notoriously good at getting out of nets and this one was no exception.  The catch for the day was: Great Tit 2; Coal Tit 2; Robin 1; Song Thrush 2; Blackcap 3.  As expected, there were no retrapped birds.  Despite the low catch, I think this is a gem of a wood: it is just about finding the best place to set the nets.  There are a lot of differing habitats, and should offer a good variety of birds.

Despite the low numbers, everybody had an enjoyable time.  Throughout the morning we had masses of birdsong: besides those we caught we could identify songs from Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Bullfinch and Cuckoo. There was also the call of Green Woodpecker and the drumming of a Great Spotted Woodpecker, which also gave occasional, fleeting, views.  There were also views of a Nuthatch going to and from its nest hole.  Before the team arrived, I had several excellent views of a Field Vole, and it was just busy doing whatever voles do and totally ignored my presence. Unfortunately on none of those occasions did I have my camera to hand to photograph it.  We also saw a Common Lizard and, a key indicator species: an Oil Beetle.


There was another unfortunate contretemps.  It seems to be becoming a habit.  As I returned to the ringing station with one of the Blackcaps we were accosted by, what I presume were, a married couple of birders, who told me that, whilst members of the BTO, they didn’t approve of bird ringing.  I love people who ask you to justify what you are doing but then won’t actually let you answer. The simple fact is: no ringing, virtually no ornithology.  Fortunately, Chelsie put up a sterling defence, explaining how the Trust uses the data that our team provides to help them make and understand the effects of management decisions for their nature reserves. This cut no ice with them because they have been to Spurn and know that recapture rates are very low: 2%.  The fact is that any migration hotspot will have a low incidence of recapture at that site.  However, many of those birds will be recaptured elsewhere, and it helps build a picture of migration routes and changes.  Because of the project based work that my team does, my recapture rate is much higher. In 2017 my team processed 3,036 birds across all sites, of which 838 were recaptures of already ringed birds, i.e. 28%.  If I focus purely on my Ravensroost Wood project site, the situation is very different: 41% of birds processed are recaptures. The man accused me of lying or, as he put it, he didn’t accept my statistics.  They are available for anyone who wants to see them.  It is what happens with blinkered people: they will only accept data if it confirms their prejudice. When he came back some time later, without apologising for his insinuation, he offered his hand and said he didn’t want to leave things with bad blood, uttered the ubiquitous “No hard feelings” platitude: I shook it, not to appear churlish, but I am not sure why.  I just wish people who know so little about a subject, but have such strong opinions, would make an effort to open their minds and learn.

Ravensroost Meadow Pond: 25th April 2018

With the forecast for it to be windy, and with rain setting in at about 11:00, we changed venue from Brown’s Farm to the more sheltered environs of Ravensroost Meadow pond.  In the event, it was a bit too windy for this site as well.  Not dangerous for the birds, but too much billowing of the nets and too little pocket.  So, not the busiest day we have ever had, which was unfortunate given that I had both Andrew and Jonny with me.  However, we did add two more Lesser Whitethroat and two more Willow Warbler to this year’s list.  One of the Willow Warblers was a female, already with a well developed brood patch.  This is a good sign, given the recently observed change in behaviour of the females of this species to a more northerly migration.

We also caught out first Whitethroat of the year.  This bird was caught at the pond as a juvenile in August 2016.  Nice to see it back!


The total list for the day was: Blue Tit 1(1); Great Tit (1); Whitethroat (1); Lesser Whitethroat 2; Willow Warbler 2.  Totals: five birds ringed from three species, three birds retrapped from three species, making eight birds processed from five species.  Despite the poor catch, we enjoyed the session, watching the Swallows, Reed Buntings and Goldfinches flying over the nets and listening to the Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs singing away in the bushes.  We also enjoyed the Cowslips that are out in bloom all round the area. Lovely flowers:


To finish the day, we drove up to Coped Hall roundabout to have a look at the reported three Glaucous and single Iceland Gulls on the fields there.  Needless to say, they had departed by the time we got there. Just a simple reminder of why I no longer twitch birds.

A Busy Week: 16th to 21st April 2018

With the weather finally improving, I wanted to catch up on some of the missed sessions during the course of this week.   This led to four sessions in six days.  On Monday it was Ravensroost Woods, Wednesday at Tedworth House, Thursday on Somerford Common and today (Saturday) at Lower Moor Farm.

This time of the year is usually the quietest, making it the best time of year to start new trainees to the world of bird ringing.  Monday’s session was the first for Hayley, the latest recruit to our team.  She was referred to me by the BTO, has done a little bit of ringing during the course of her degree, and lives and works close by to my Braydon Forest sites.  Fortunately, she also has the temperament to fit right in.  As I wanted to be able to give her the chance to start working with the birds without pressure, we set up just two net rides of four 18 metre nets each, and the catch was correspondingly small.  We caught Blue Tit 4(1); Robin (1); Blackbird (1); Blackcap 3(1); Chiffchaff 1; Goldcrest 2.  Totals: 10 birds ringed from four species; four birds retrapped from four species, making 14 birds processed from six species.

On Wednesday I did my usual monthly session at Tedworth House. It actually wasn’t that usual, as I was asked if I would allow a family, whose dad is undergoing rehabilitation at Tedworth, to join me for the morning. As that is one of my main motivations for doing it, I was very happy to have them along: Mum, Dad and their three boys were good company and we all enjoyed the morning.  With the improved weather other members of the staff and attendees also came to see the birds.  We were lucky enough to get a good variety of birds throughout the morning.  The list from the session was: Great Spotted Woodpecker 1; Nuthatch (2); Blue Tit 3(4); Great Tit (2); Coal Tit 1(1); Blackbird 1(1); Blackcap 1; Chiffchaff 1; Greenfinch 1.  Totals: nine birds ringed from seven species; 10 birds retrapped from five species, making 19 birds processed from nine species.  Any session that starts with a Great Spotted Woodpecker as the first bird is a good session.

Thursday saw Jonny and I head to Somerford Common.   There is a lot going on at this site, with a lot of scrub clearance in the fenced off enclosure, leaving the mature trees and hazel stands for coppicing over the years ahead.  It looks rather like a wasteland at the moment.  We set four net rides, totalling 10 x 18 metre nets, and had a reasonable catch for this time of year.  It will be interesting to see how the management regime affects the catch.  The session was notable for a catch of four Willow Warblers, two retrapped from last year (one ringed in the Spring, the second at the end of the breeding season) and two new individuals, but no Chiffchaffs and then, right at the end of the session, we caught two female Jays – and narrowly missed out on a third, that managed to extricate itself from the net before Jonny could get to it.

The list for the session was: Jay 2; Blue Tit 2(2); Coal Tit 1(2); Long-tailed Tit 1(1); Dunnock 2; Robin 2; Blackcap 3; Willow Warbler 2(2); Bullfinch 1.  Totals: 16 birds ringed from nine species; seven birds retrapped from four species, making 23 birds processed from nine species.

Jonny, sharp-eyed and alert, heard a bit of a rustle in the foliage on the floor and spotted a Common Lizard in amongst the grasses.  It is the first I have seen on the site.

Today was a special session run for the Oaksey Wildlife Watch Group.  There are over 300 Wildlife Watch Groups in the UK.  They are volunteer run bodies, usually within the umbrella of the local Wildlife Trust organisation, with the aim of involving young children with all aspects of wildlife.  When I was asked if I would run (another) session for a Watch Group there was never any doubt that we would do it.  Jonny volunteered and Ellie, who had a lot to do today, as she is running guided walks to see the Snake’s-Head Fritillaries in Clattinger Meadows tomorrow, kindly turned up to help during the 9:00 to 11:00 period the children were with us.  Again, the catch wasn’t huge but we had enough birds and a good enough variety to keep the children (and their parents and the volunteers) interested and happy for the session.

We had our first Lesser Whitethroats of the year and the retrapped Garden Warbler was first ringed as an adult in May 2016, was retrapped in May 2017 and has now arrived for the third year (that we know of) as an adult.  These birds over-winter in sub-equatorial and southern Africa: that is a lot of miles this bird has covered in its life.

The list for the morning was: Blue Tit 2(3); Great Tit 1(2); Dunnock 1(2); Blackbird 2; Blackcap 2(1); Garden Warbler (1); Lesser Whitethroat 3; Chiffchaff 3(2); Goldcrest 1; Chaffinch 1.  Totals: 16 birds ringed from nine species; 11 birds retrapped from six species, making 27 birds processed from 10 species.

The session closed at 11:00 and, as the families were leaving, one of the children noticed a newly built Long-tailed Tit nest in one of the bramble bushes lining the main path.  It was clearly occupied, as they saw a bird fly out whilst they were looking at the nest.

LTT Nest

Blakehill Farm, 14th April and Ravensroost Wood, 16th April 2018

Desperate to get some ringing activity in between all of this rain, I have had the nets open in the garden for a few hours in between showers.  It has been a pleasantly varied catch with one sparkling bonus: my first garden Blackcap.  It was a female coming into breeding condition, but weighing in at over 20g.  I cannot decide whether she has had an easy migration to the UK and not used up a lot of her fat reserves, or is having a late departure to central Europe to breed.

The birds caught were: Blue Tit 4(1); Great Tit 3; Long-tailed Tit 2; Blackbird 1; Blackcap 1; Starling 3; Chaffinch 1; Greenfinch 1; Goldfinch 4(3); Robin 2. Totals: 22 birds ringed from 10 species; four birds retrapped from two species, making 26 birds processed from 10 species.

I did catch a Wren, which I incompetently managed to allow to escape from the bag as I was taking it out to ring it, and a beautiful male Chaffinch that I couldn’t ring as it was showing signs of Fringilla Papilloma Virus.

On Saturday, with the weather forecast for sunshine and minimal wind, Steph and I went to Blakehill Farm, basing ourselves at the Whitworth Building.  With just the two of us we didn’t set a lot of net, three rides, and, consequently, had a small catch. As with the garden, the variety was good: Great Tit (3); Wren 1; Dunnock 2(1); Chiffchaff 3; Linnet 1; House Sparrow 3. Totals: 10 birds ringed from five species; four birds retrapped from two species, making 14 birds processed from six species.

Two of the Great Tits were interesting: they were caught at opposite ends of the site, but had consecutive ring numbers. Potentially nest mates who have dispersed to find their own territories.  There were half-a-dozen Linnets flying around, but we only managed to catch the one, fine looking, male:


We don’t catch many House Sparrows: they seem to be very good at avoiding nets, so catching three was unusual for us.  They were all males:


Because we have missed so many sessions this year I decided to go for an extra session at Ravensroost Woods on Monday.  I was joined by Hayley Roberts, for her first taster session as a potential trainee.  Again, being mindful that I was the only person available to extract birds, we only set two rides and had an appropriately small catch.  The catch for the day was: Blue Tit 4(1); Robin (1); Blackbird (1); Blackcap 3(1); Chiffchaff 1; Goldcrest 2.  Totals: 10 birds ringed from four species; four birds retrapped from four species, making 14 birds processed from six species.

All of the birds caught were showing signs of coming into breeding condition: it won’t be long before they are laying and brooding.  Not spectacularly large catches but thoroughly enjoyable sessions.

The photos are courtesy of Steph Buggins. Thanks Steph.

Webb’s Wood, Sunday 1st April & Lower Moor Farm, Thursday, 5th April 2018

These two sessions were both scheduled for the day before they were actually carried out but, because of the weather, each had to be postponed for 24 hours.  My team is scheduled to do approximately 100 ringing sessions per annum. In the last year we have had to cancel 25% of them and move another 5% because of the change in the weather to a wetter and windier profile.

I have removed the feeding stations from all of the sites now, so we will not be catching the Tit flocks that have been the staple of our winter catches.  At Webb’s Wood I was joined by Steph and David (back from university for the Easter holidays), and we set up a few nets along the main tracks at the top end of the wood.  There wasn’t a large catch but it was a pleasant session with no pressure on extracting the birds.  As we have been unable to find a trainer for David to work with whilst in Aberystwyth, I am astonished at how quickly he gets back into the extraction and processing techniques.

The catch for the day was: Blue Tit 4(1); Great Tit (1); Coal Tit 2; Long-tailed Tit (2); Robin 3; Song Thrush (1); Chiffchaff 2; Goldcrest 3(4). Totals: 14 birds ringed from five species, nine birds retrapped from five species, making 23 birds processed from eight species.

There was nothing exceptional in the catch, but it is always good to retrap Goldcrests at the end of the winter: weighing in at approximately 5g survival must always be on a knife-edge.

Our trip to Lower Moor Farm on Thursday was not only the wrong day but also the wrong site.  We had scheduled to ring at Blakehill Farm but, due to an unfortunate confusion, I was given the wrong combination for the padlock on the gate and, as it is about one mile to the ringing site, I wasn’t prepared to carry my kit that far, even with Jonny’s help.  Rather than telephoning people at 6:15 in the morning to get the correct code (apparently not everybody is up bright and early), we decided to decamp to Lower Moor Farm.

It was a lovely morning but not too many birds hitting the nets. However, we had our first Blackcaps of the year arrive on site, with four males and a female being caught.  All five were carrying reasonable levels of fat for birds that have completed the longest part of their migration.

The catch was: Treecreeper 1(1); Blue Tit 1(1); Long-tailed Tit (2); Wren 1; Dunnock 1(2); Robin 1; Song Thrush 2; Blackbird (1); Blackcap 5; Chiffchaff 1; Bullfinch 1(1). Totals: 14 birds ringed from nine species; eight birds retrapped from six species, making 22 birds processed from 11 species.  It is a good start to the early Spring migration. The only downside: it was perfect weather for working at Blakehill Farm.

Kings Farm Wood Ringing Demonstration: Sunday, 25th March 2018

This event was originally scheduled for the Saturday but, with an adverse weather forecast, we moved it to the Sunday. Weather-wise, it was a good move. After my test run on the 16th,  we decided to only set three sets of nets, two by the feeding stations and one in a small glade between the two feeding stations.  We had a strong extraction team out today: with Ellie, Jonny and Steph carrying out those duties, whilst I did the demonstrating.  It worked well, with the team doing regular rounds every 15 minutes, giving me enough birds to keep the audience informed and entertained.

I think everybody enjoyed the session (with just the one minor hiccup) and we had a reasonable catch of 31 birds.  There were fewer birds than I was expecting, and I am not sure why the numbers were down. I had topped up the feeders on Thursday and they were empty again when I arrived on site, so I filled them again, expecting that would bring them back in.  Unfortunately, it didn’t but we did have a steady run of birds coming through, which ensured the ringing demonstration went well.
The list for the day was: Blue Tit 5(3); Great Tit 9(4); Long-tailed Tit (2); Robin 3; Chiffchaff 1; Chaffinch 3(1). Totals: 21 birds ringed from five species, 10 birds retrapped from four species, making a total of 31 birds processed from six species.
All of the children were taught how to safely hold and release birds and they all got to do so for a couple of the birds each.  They are first subjected to the “pecked by a Blue Tit” test, to ensure they won’t overreact to the birds when handling them.  Also, every adult who wanted to also got taught how to hold and release a bird.
The birding highlight was our first Chiffchaff of the year.  As everyone who was there will know, the lowlight (the minor hiccup) was the man who ignored the warning signs set by the net rides and was trying to get a Great Tit out of the net.  After being stopped, he chose to assault me in front of some 20 witnesses, one of whom filmed it on his phone.  I picked myself up off the floor and just extracted the bird he was close to maiming: I don’t do violence.  It has taken five years and about 450 ringing sessions for someone to get violent with me because of bird ringing, so I won’t let it put me off.  Thanks to everyone for their subsequent support.  I was going to ignore it but, because it was a formal, organised event, and at the insistence of the BTO and the Wildlife Trust, it has now been reported to the police.


Long Distance Coal Tit, Periparus ater

On Friday, 16th March, Andrew Bray was ringing at his Lacock Abbey Allotments site. He had a decent session: 35 birds caught, 22 ringed and 13 recaptures.  Amongst the recaptures was a solitary Coal Tit, ring number Z495503.  The ring series looked familiar, and it didn’t prompt any particular additional interest.

Today I received a report from the British Trust for Ornithology.  This bird was originally ringed on the 3rd January 2015 at the Ordiequish Forest, Fochabers, Moray.  It has travelled 687km in 1,168 days.  The previous movement record for a Coal Tit in the UK and Ireland is 636km in 1,133 days.  That bird moved from Highland to Herefordshire.