A Plethora of Pipits: Blakehill Farm, Tuesday, 25th September 2018

Some time back we had scheduled to run one of our regular ringing demonstrations for the Swindon Wildlife Group at Blakehill Farm. We normally do Saturdays but, with the 22nd September coinciding with the Wildlife Trust’s “Country Comes to Town” event, we scheduled for Sunday, 23rd September.  Unfortunately, it decided to rain torrentially for most of the day and we had to cancel.

Having caught a decent haul of Meadow Pipits at Blakehill last time out, Jonny and I decided to have a session Tuesday morning to see if we could catch a few more.  Unlike the last session, we were sharing half of the site with the Trust’s cattle: cows with calves and their superb Aberdeen Angus bull.  The electric fence was off all morning.  The cattle clearly didn’t realise, as they dutifully stayed away from the wires.  We have found on several occasions that we can safely work around the cattle.  I suppose it helps that both Jonny and I have farming backgrounds, so have experience of working around livestock, and it helps that they just don’t seem interested in our nets.  We didn’t tempt fate too much, with just two net sets in the cattle field.

At 6:00 this morning the temperature was zero degrees Celsius and the place was shrouded in mist, which was quite handy, as it didn’t lift at all until we had the plateau nets open. We never got round to setting the perimeter track nets, as we started catching almost straight away. It seemed every bush had a Meadow Pipit or three sitting atop it. The temperature began to rise and the mist lifted.  By 10:00 it was a very comfortable 23 degrees Celsius and the birds became very active.

We were confident that there were well over 200 Meadow Pipits out on the plateau.  Between 8:00 and 11:30 we caught 131 birds, of which 98 were Meadow Pipits. An excellent haul, given that we only had half our normal nets set up.

As anyone who reads the West Wilts Ringing Group blog knows, we don’t target big catches: our preference is for low intensity sessions where we can focus on each individual bird and maximise the data from each and maximise the training opportunity for the team.  As all of the major migration hot-spot sites on Salisbury Plain or the Marlborough Downs are already taken, our approach is realistic for the sites we have available.  A catch of this size is unusual for my team.  It is our second largest ever.  Blakehill is our favourite place (when we can get on it: weather and sensitivity to ground nesting birds control access), because you never know what will turn up, but we are never going to catch 200+ Blackcaps on migration because rightly, given its special status as the main lowland neutral grassland reserve in the UK, there are no large areas of low scrub so beloved by birds on migration.  However, this catch came exclusively from the small isolated bushes on the plateau’s edge.  We think that one key reason for so many Meadow Pipits being about was that there were swarms of crane-flies around the plateau.  Being an insectivorous bird this must have helped to attract them in.

Blakehill 2

This was our net set.  The yellow line is the position of the electric fence, the red lines are the nets: mainly 6m, 9m and 12m and one 18m, providing the backbone of the complex set.  Meadow Pipits are slow flying and so the traditional method of catching them is to set up an open triangle of nets with a lure placed towards the back net.  The birds are attracted to the lure and, if the trappers run toward them, through the open end of the triangle, they fly off less carefully than normal and some end up in the nets ready for extraction and ringing.  We augmented the nets in that complex with several spring traps and Potter traps (a walk in cage with a tripwire mechanism) baited with live mealworms. They were, generally, a failure, with just one spring trap doing its job. The complex itself delivered 30% of the Meadow Pipits and 3 of the Chiffchaffs, so well worth the effort.

The list for the day was: Blue Tit 4; Great Tit 2; Dunnock 2; Stonechat 1; Whinchat 3; Robin 1; Meadow Pipit 97(1); Blackcap 1; Chiffchaff 4; Goldfinch 2; Linnet 1; Reed Bunting 11(1).  Totals 129 birds ringed from 12 species; 2 birds recaptured from 3 species, making 131 birds processed from 12 species.

This takes our Whinchat total to 12 for Blakehill this year, our best ever.  It was our first Stonechat of the year anywhere.  It was a cracking juvenile male:


There was also only our second Linnet for the whole Blakehill complex for this year.  We recaptured a Meadow Pipit from our last ringing session.  The other recapture was a Reed Bunting, but the ring it was sporting was not one of ours.  It will be interesting to find out exactly where and when it was ringed (and whether we have correctly interpreted age and sex).

The weather was flat calm throughout the morning until just gone 11:30 when, from nowhere, a pretty strong breeze sprang up and brought our session to an end.  It was a cracking session: the birds came regularly, but not in such numbers that we couldn’t easily manage them.  The variety was good and the Meadow Pipit catch astonishing.

Tedworth House: Thursday, 13th September 2018

As Dave Turner was scheduled to be involved in a team building exercise with the Help4Heroes crew at Tedworth House today, I was fully expecting to do this one solo. It was a very pleasant surprise when he rolled up just after 6:00 to help me get set up.  A good man. Furthermore, it meant that my monthly bacon sarnie was also back on the menu, before he met up with the “team” for their building exercise at 8:30. The hash brown was a bonus!

Unlike last month’s session, this one started brightly: the first round delivering 11 birds: two more than the entirety of August’s.  In those 11 birds were 2 each of Goldfinch, Greenfinch and Blackcap plus a Chiffchaff and a Dunnock  and the obligatory Blue Tits (3 thereof).

Round two delivered another 9 birds and I was hopeful of a good sized catch by the end of the session – and then it just died off.  The day was rescued by the last catch: a juvenile female Sparrowhawk.  We don’t catch many: this is the second caught at the site in 5 years of working there and only the sixth that I have processed in my 9 year ringing career to date.  Unfortunately, there is no photograph, as I was working alone.  I was able to show the bird to one family who were visiting the site, and they were absolutely delighted to see such a stunning bird close up.

The list for the day was: Sparrowhawk 1; Blue Tit 4(1); Dunnock 1(1); Robin (2); Blackbird 1(1); Blackcap 4(2); Chiffchaff 1; Goldfinch 2; Greenfinch 2.  Totals: 16 birds ringed from 8 species; 7 birds recaptured from 5 species, making 23 birds processed from 9 species. Of these, all bar 4 were juvenile birds.  The adults were the retrapped Blackbird and one of the retrapped Blackcaps, plus one each of the Goldfinch and Greenfinch.

I did spend some time looking at the absolute carpets of fungi covering the lawn leading up from the House to the Reflection Pond. A few photos.  I have no idea what species they are except for one that I think might be Coprinus comatus: the Shaggy Cap or Lawyer’s Wig:


There were several other species around. These are some of the better looking ones:

If anyone can identify them I would be delighted to find out what they are.

Blakehill Farm: Saturday, 8th September 2018

We had a short but interesting session at Blakehill this morning.  I was joined by my old trainer, Ian Grier, plus Jonny, Steph, Lillie and our latest recruit, Tim Tapley from the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s Estates Management team and, briefly, by Neil Pullen, the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s Reserves Manager.

With nets set by the small bushes on the edge of the central plateau for any wandering migrants, plus a net set for resident Meadow Pipits, we were hopeful of a decent catch.

For once the perimeter track hedgerow nets, usually the source of the highest numbers of birds caught, caught absolutely nothing in 6 x 18 metre nets. Unfortunately we were immediately beset by two problems: we had light rain on and off whilst setting the nets and for the first full two hours of catching, despite the forecast suggesting that there was only the slightest chance of rain first thing, and the light breeze we started with grew steadily stronger, so that by 10:30 we had to take down.  Fortunately, the heavy rain forecast for mid-morning never materialised.

So, to have our best ever catch of Whinchat (9), our first ever Tree Pipit for the site, and 15 (out of goodness knows how many flying around) Meadow Pipits in the short time we had available was very satisfying.  The rest of the catch comprised 2 Whitethroat, 1 new and 1 recaptured Dunnock and 3 Reed Buntings.


One thing that was nice to be able to look at was the difference in the wing markings between male (top) and female Whinchat:
It was a shame we had to pack up early but we are rather of the opinion that this is going to be a long autumn migration season and we might well still have a good spread of migrants to show at the ringing demonstration.  As discussed with Neil, many Swallows are still rearing third broods and are not yet on migration. It seems likely that the same applies to House Martins.  Given that one of the Meadow Pipits was a newly fledged bird, showing no sign of post-fledging moult, clearly this is one of the longest breeding seasons we have seen for a while.

Ravensroost Meadows: Wednesday, 5th September 2018

We had a bit of a frustrating session in the meadow at Ravensroost this morning. This time last year we were catching 140 birds, including Swallows and House Martins. This year just 33 birds caught with no Hirundines.  We had a few flying around but nothing like the numbers previously. Here’s hoping that they are all still feeding third broods and delaying their departure that bit longer.  The team was geared up for the higher level of catch with Jonny, Ellie and David joining me for the session. The Wildlife Trust’s latest employee, Emmeline, also came along to see what it is all about.

With just 9 birds before 8:30 and none at all between 8:30 and 10:30.  Whilst we were looking at empty nets, I decided we would pack up if the next round was empty. So, 20 birds later we decided to leave them open for a bit longer. We didn’t catch many more so packed up at 11:30.

One of the birds caught at 10:30 was the first ever Whinchat caught and ringed at the Ravensroost complex.  I have had it confirmed that this is the first ever record of any sort for this species at the site. It was quite a surprise to find it there as it certainly doesn’t seem like typical Whinchat habitat, even on migration.


The list for the day was: Blue Tit 10; Great Tit 2(1); Wren 4; Whinchat 1; Robin 2; Blackcap 8; Whitethroat 2; Chiffchaff 1; Willow Warbler 2.  Totals: 32 birds ringed from 9 species and 1 bird recaptured. Of the birds caught 6 were adults: one each of the Great Tit, Robin and Willow Warbler; the Whinchat and 2 of the Blackcaps.

The Wrens were interesting: two of them were in full juvenile plumage with no indication of their having started their post-juvenile moult. These are quite late for second broods. The first fully juvenile Wrens caught were caught mid-June in the neighbouring Ravensroost Wood.  BTO Bird Facts credits them with having 2 broods per year: from egg laying to fledging is about 5 weeks. Excitingly, doing the maths, it is entirely possible that these youngsters are third brood birds: further investigation required! I have asked the ringing community if they have any hard evidence of third broods in Wrens.

Lower Moor Farm: CES 12, Saturday, 1st September 2018, + Summary

Saturday marked the end of the fourth year of the constant effort site at Lower Moor Farm. The point of the CES scheme is, by putting the nets in the same place, for the same length of time, year on year, standardising the variables, you can trace trends in the bird population at the site, being relatively confident that changes in the population are just that and not down to moving the nets to better positions.

Saturday’s session was quieter than the same session last year, which was a bit unfortunate given that we had a large team out.  Jonny, Ellie, Steph and I were joined by Tim, one of the Wildlife Trust’s Estate Management Team, coming along for a taster session.

The list for the day was as follows: Treecreeper 1; Blue Tit 1; Wren 1(1); Dunnock (3); Robin (5); Blackbird 2; Reed Warbler 2; Blackcap 11(1); Chiffchaff 5(1); Willow Warbler 1; Goldcrest 1; Bullfinch (1).  Totals: 25 birds ringed from 9 species, 12 birds recaptured from 6 species, making 37 birds processed from 12 species.

Over the last four years we have seen a steady reduction in the number of birds caught:


The change is mainly due to a significant fall in the number of birds ringed between 2015 and 2016, remaining relatively stable in 2017 but falling away a lot more in 2018.  In 2018, the number of retrapped birds has fallen compared to the previous three years.  The number of species ringed and recaptured have remained relatively constant:


The nets are set in the following positions:

Lower Moor rides close up

When I looked further at the data, it is clear that the main issue revolves around one set of nets:


Ride 2 has shown a steady reduction in numbers caught over the period.  This ride has been subjected to several management procedures over the last couple of years: thinning of the trees to the side of the path away from the brook, development of scallops, top encourage butterflies on the brook side, and removal of significant amounts of bramble from that area as a result.  It will be interesting to see whether, as these procedures mature, the catch returns to its previous level.  The numbers were falling before these changes were made, however, and the same changes have been made to ride 3, which has not shown such a dramatic, nor continual, reduction.

Somerford Common and Ravensroost Woods: 27th and 29th August 2018

Having missed last Wednesday’s session at Somerford Common, due to rain and wind, Steph, Andrew and I met up there at 5:30 on Monday morning. We set a few lures away, hoping for some migrants coming through. Unfortunately, none of them managed to draw in the target species.  We had a reasonable catch of 35 birds, made up as follows: Blue Tit 6(1); Great Tit 2(1); Coal Tit 2; Long-tailed Tit 1(2); Wren 2; Dunnock 1; Robin 3; Blackcap 5; Chiffchaff 8; Willow Warbler 1. Totals: 31 birds ringed from 10 species; 4 birds recaptured from 3 species, making 35 birds processed from 10 species.  Of the birds caught, 27 were juvenile birds. The adults were 1 each of Coal Tit, Great Tit and Chiffchaff, 2 Long-tailed Tits and 3 Blue Tits.

We have seen an interesting phenomenon recently: catches have been reasonably steady from when we open the nets until 10:00 in the morning, and then it drops off dramatically to virtually zero. Our last four sessions have been the same in this respect so when we arrived at Ravensroost Woods for the August project session we did wonder what would happen.  I was joined by Jonny and Andrew for the session.

We set our nets along the usual rides and started catching straight away. The catch was regular until 8:30 and then dropped off dramatically. We spent the next hour visiting empty nets – and then it got interesting. Firstly, there have been reports of Spotted Flycatcher in the wood for several years now.  We have all seen them.  A family group was seen earlier this week in the vicinity of the meadow pond. However, before today none had been caught. This now means that they have been caught in four of the five woods that we monitor in the Braydon Forest.  We are hopeful that there is a small breeding population in the Forest: a family group has also been seen in the Firs this summer.


In addition, we had a decent fall of Chiffchaff in the same net.  They have been a bit scarce over the last couple of years, compared with the previous three years, but numbers seem to be picking up again.

The list for the day was: Nuthatch 3(3); Treecreeper 1; Blue Tit 6; Great Tit 2; Marsh Tit 1; Wren 1; Spotted Flycatcher 1; Robin 4(2); Blackbird (1); Blackcap 11; Chiffchaff 13(2).  Totals: 43 birds ringed from 10 species; 8 birds recaptured from 4 species, making 35 birds processed from 11 species.  Of the birds caught, 37 were definitely fledged this year; 8 were definitely adult and 6 (the Nuthatches) were impossible to age as either fledgling or adult as both undergo a full moult into adult plumage in the summer / early autumn.  This catch compares well with the equivalent session last year (30 birds from 10 species): adding to the trend of matching or bettering the previous year’s catch this late summer / autumn.

As well as the Spotted Flycatcher and the Chiffchaff numbers, it was a relief to catch another Marsh Tit.  Things are moving a bit slowly for this species this year, so we will be focusing our efforts on trying to improve the numbers caught between now and the end of December.

About 10:00 a volunteer team came along to work on the Shooters’ Hut in the middle of the wood. It has been vandalised frequently over the years. They have done a lovely job of repairing it: it looks smashing and it incorporates an owl box.  Let’s hope the vandals leave it alone and the owls don’t!

At 10:30 we were surprised to find a large group of people brandishing pitchforks and scythes come down the main path towards us! Fortunately, our not having recently cobbled together and reanimated a being from parts garnered from various cadavers, they were friendly.  It was a work party come to cut the verges of the path.  I love the fact that the Trust is now able to eschew the tractor and flail mower they used to contract with, to cut back the vegetation along the paths, with the messy and ragged result that used to leave, and have this skilled volunteer workforce to carry out this much better, economic and eco-friendly maintenance.  As they were carrying out their task one of the crew scythed apart a stand of vegetation to reveal what was either a Blackcap or Garden Warbler nest. The key thing about this is that the nest was less than 18″ from the path and a similar distance off the ground. This is why dogs must be kept on leads and not allowed to roam off the path during the breeding season.  These nests are so vulnerable to even the most friendly and well-meaning dog.  (Of course, the Trust rule is that should be the case all year round. Unfortunately, it is regularly ignored by those “responsible” dog owners.)

The catch fell away at 11:30 and we packed up and left site at about 12:30 – leaving the scything crew to carry on their good work.

New Zealand Farm: Saturday, 25th August 2018

Ian and Andy had a very early start, hoping to catch any migrating Nightjar that might be in the area.  They were unlucky but Steph and I were particularly lucky because by the time we arrived at 6:00 virtually all of the nets were already set up and ready to go.

We were not as lucky as on our last visit. Unfortunately, it was quite breezy, which did limit the number of nets that could be set to the more sheltered parts. Shelter and Salisbury Plain do not really go together.  The morning was quite cold and even the rising sun did not particularly warm the place up.  However, it did make some of the nets extremely visible.  We tried a simple two shelf net by the only water in the immediate area: a not too big puddle.  This usually works as a magnet for birds looking for a drink or a wash – but not on this occasion.

The catch for the day was: Blue Tit 1; Tree Pipit 1; Wren 1(1);  Dunnock 2; Robin 2; Song Thrush 2; Blackbird 1; Blackcap 4; Whitethroat 8.  Totals 22 birds ringed from 9 species plus 1 recapture.  All birds were juvenile except one each of the Wren, Whitethroat and Song Thrush.

The star bird of the session was the Tree Pipit:


The number of birds fell of dramatically very quickly and by 10:00 we were just watching empty nets. At 11:00 we gave it up as a bad job and took the nets down.

Wild Camping, “Instagrammers” and Bird Ringing

This weekend saw the penultimate CES session for the year.  One of the more sensible things I decided upon when I set up my CES was to limit the number of nets to what I thought I would be able to manage alone when I am older and even more decrepit, and cannot necessarily rely on my team to turn up to the session for whatever reason. Yesterday, nearly all of those things came to pass, with one crying off on the morning with a cold and Steph turning up after I had set the nets (okay, that was by arrangement, maternal duties take precedence).

The weather was actually (relatively) cold, with very light occasional showers for the first two hours.  This meant there was very little insect activity, and the initial rounds only produced a couple of birds at a time.  As the weather warmed up, so the catches improved.

We knew that the Wildlife Trust were trialling a “wild camping” weekend at Lower Moor Farm and that we would have some visitors. Having woken a few of them between 4:30 and 5:30 when banging in pegs and making holes for the poles, there were visitors from minute one.  These were mainly Trust employees, and it was really good to give them the chance to get close to some of the birds that frequent their northern flagship reserve.

What we didn’t expect was 20+ photographers to turn up at 10:30.  Possibly worse: they were a self-styled group of “Instagrammers”.  There are clear rules laid down by the BTO for using social media as, great tool though it is, it is probably better at spreading negative messages than positive ones.  As there was no point in trying to stop them taking photographs, and even less chance of stopping them from posting them on Instagram, I asked them to avoid posting shots that included Steph’s or my face (no hardship in cropping out my ugly mug).  Also, I asked them not to publish any photos of the birds in positions that might look as though they were uncomfortable, as those present would be aware that the birds were fine, whereas others looking at the photos might not.  It is also true that there is a significant clique on the internet who use poor ringing photographs to spread disinformation about the practice (or even just photos of ringers smiling whilst holding birds, as though enjoyment somehow invalidates the value of ringing. Something has to compensate for the early starts and the ever increasing cost.).

The group all agreed and, to be fair, were very interested in what was going on and delighted to see some species that they had not seen up close before. You know a session has gone reasonably well when people make a point of coming up to you some time afterwards to say how much they enjoyed it and how much they had learnt.

Steph and I also enjoyed it, we caught three Sedge Warblers in the session.  We have never previously caught more than two in one session.


(Photo courtesy of Steph.)

The list for the day was: Blue Tit 7(3); Long-tailed Tit 3(1); Wren (1); Dunnock 1; Robin 3; Blackbird 1; Reed Warbler 1; Sedge Warbler 3; Blackcap 15(1); Garden Warbler 9; Whitethroat 2; Lesser Whitethroat 1; Chiffchaff 6(2); Willow Warbler 3; Bullfinch 1.  Totals: 56 birds ringed from 14 species; 8 birds recaptured from 5 species, making 64 birds processed from 15 species.  58 of the birds caught were definitely fledged this year, 2 of the Long-tailed Tits probably were, but it is difficult to be certain about that at this time of year.  Both adults and fledglings moult into full adult plumage by the autumn.  I made the assessment on the colouration of the eye-ring (generally, red in juveniles, orange in adults) but have been circumspect in entering the details into the national database.

Garden Warbler numbers continue to surprise, with our best ever Quarter 3 so far, with a total of 31 ringed and 3 recaptured.  The overall catch was slightly down on the equivalent session last year, which had a total of 72 birds from the same number of species: the difference being fewer recaptured birds (16 from 8 species, opposed to this year’s 8 from 5) but we ringed 2 more birds this year.  There were key differences in the composition of the catch: Blue Tit and Chiffchaff numbers were less than half of last year’s session; whereas, unsurprisingly given what I stated above, Garden Warbler numbers are significantly improved (9 to 1) and we had no Sedge Warblers at this time in 2017.

Steph and I closed the nets and packed up at 11:30 after a thoroughly satisfying session.




Tedworth House: Wednesday, 15th August 2018

Today was probably the smallest catch that I have blogged about, with only 9 birds caught, but it was a good session for all that.  Dave Turner turned up to help as usual, only I was also joined today by Gemma Louise, Sarah, Ellie and Rowan from Sparsholt College’s animal handling team.  Many thanks to them for their help and enthusiasm – despite the small catch.  From the first bird: a retrapped Wren, to the last: a Woodpigeon, they were good company, interested and keen to take part.  They are now looking to arrange a ringing demonstration at the college.

We caught another juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker, our third in a week, in the second net round but the star bird arrived in the third round: the first Whitethroat caught at Tedworth House. It was a juvenile bird, no doubt making its way south from having fledged on Salisbury Plain:

2018_08_15 White

The last bird caught today was a Woodpigeon.  I am always a bit ambivalent about ringing Woodpigeons, given their propensity to end up as a starter in restaurants / gastro-pubs but, as with any other bird, I think that if I have inconvenienced it, no matter how trivially, by catching it, the least I can do is process the bird.  So I ringed it.  I ring few birds that take an F-size ring, so it is good practice for ringing other birds that take larger rings.

2018_08_15 Woodp

The list for the session was: Woodpigeon 1; Great Spotted Woodpecker 1; Blue Tit 1; Wren (1); Robin 3; Blackcap 1; Whitethroat 1.  Totals: 8 birds ringed from 6 species; 1 bird recaptured, making 9 birds processed from 7 species.  All birds, except the Woodpigeon, were juveniles.

This funny little site, gradually being opened up and improved for wildlife, has now delivered 36 species, including some real stunners (Firecrest, Black Redstart) and birds you don’t find being caught in mist nets and ringed very often (Mallard, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Mistle Thrush).  If the promised delivery of a wildlife pond, and the opening up of a new ride in the wood, happen this winter we can look forward to, hopefully, broaching the 40 species mark next year.

Red Lodge: Saturday, 11th August 2018

Red Lodge, like Webb’s Wood, has always been one of those sites where the catches were large when the feeding station was operational and the winter flocks were around, but quiet during the rest of the year.   However, Red Lodge has really picked up since the thinning operations that, ironically, reduced the catch in 2015.  It is probably something to do with additional under-storey that has developed as a result of the thinning.

On Saturday I was joined by Jonny, David, Steph and Lillie and we set exactly the same amount of net as we did at Webb’s Wood last Saturday.  We didn’t quite get to the 100 birds, but 80 is a good haul for this site.  It was an interesting catch: the vast majority were juvenile birds – 66 of them, including two young Great Spotted Woodpeckers:


 You can tell this is a juvenile because of the red cap.  They lose this during post-fledging moult and the female retains an all black cap and the male develops a red patch at the back of the head / top of the neck. The Nuthatch could not be aged: both juveniles and adults undergo a full moult into adult plumage post- breeding / fledging and this one had just about completed its moult.

The list for the day was: Great Spotted Woodpecker 2; Nuthatch 1; Treecreeper 1; Blue Tit 20(1); Great Tit 22(2); Coal Tit 1; Marsh Tit 3(2); Wren 6(1); Dunnock 1; Robin 6; Song Thrush 2; Blackcap 5; Chiffchaff 2; Willow Warbler 2.  Totals: 74 birds ringed from 14 species and 6 birds recaptured from 4 species, making 80 birds processed from 14 species. The 6 recaptured birds were all adults, as was one each of the Great and Marsh Tits and Robin, plus two each of the Blackcaps and the Song Thrushes.

On top of the 6 Marsh Tits ringed at Webb’s Wood last weekend, we ringed another 3 this weekend at Red Lodge: 2 juveniles and 1 adult.  Hopefully this heralds a glut of the species this autumn and winter.