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Finding myself at a loose end Tuesday afternoon, due to a problematic software upgrade at my part-time bookkeeping job, I opened the nets in the back garden, hoping I might catch a few Goldfinches, coming in for the sunflower hearts.  Pretty quickly I caught a Dunnock. Fifteen minutes later it was a Blue Tit, then 15 minutes after that, the first Goldfinch - and then they started coming: five, then six, then 14. In the space of four hours my little garden delivered up one new and one retrapped Blue Tit; one new Dunnock, one new Greenfinch, one retrapped Collared Dove and 43 new and 2 retrapped Goldfinches. 50 birds in my back garden, lovely.  ST

The team had a good little session at Ravensroost Woods on Saturday. I gave them a lie-in: meeting at 7:00, so I had a good size team turn up: Ellie, Jonny, Charlie and his dad, Neil.  We caught a reasonable number for a woodland with no winter feeding stations set up yet: 33 new and 20 retrapped birds. During the morning we were joined by a few families walking through. I was asked the perennial question: "Do you catch many of them again?"  The usual argument against ringing is that the recovery rate is so low that all we are doing is trapping birds and letting them go again. This is a massive misunderstanding of the reality. In the case of my woodland sites, the recapture rate is better than 30% and, as in this case, sometimes much higher.  Even on sites with high migrant throughput recovery rates are better than 10%. When you realise that natural mortality rates for first year birds in Passerines is 70% to 80%, and for adults it is 30% to 40% recovery rates in woodlands are surprisingly high.  Taking all of my sites together, recaptures make up 26% of my 2016 catch (this will be diluted as we catch more winter visitors over the next two months); 21% in 2015 and 23% in 2014. Logically, one would expect the proportion to decrease as more new birds are ringed each year and survive.

The list for the day was: Jay 1; Treecreeper 1(1); Blue Tit 3(2); Great Tit 3; Coal Tit 1(1); Wren 1(4); Dunnock 1(1); Robin 2(5); Redwing 3; Blackbird (1); Goldcrest 16(5); Bullfinch 1. Totals: 33 birds ringed from 11 species; 20 retrapped from 8 species, making 53 birds processed from 12 species.

Ellie got the opportunity to process her first Jay, always a valuable lesson - they have sharp claws and strong, sharp beaks and need careful handling. She did it well, with no injury.

 2016 10 22Jay

One of the retrapped Wrens was originally ringed as an adult in May 2013. By my reckoning that means that this small bird has survived since fledging in, at least, 2011.  A five-and-a-half year-old bird, weighing less than 9g on each occasion it has been caught.  The longest lived Wren, from ringing data, is 7 years 3 months and 6 days, so it has a while to go yet before becoming a record breaker.

Whilst we were processing the birds we couldn't help but notice several large flocks of small finches flying around the treetops.  We never got a good view: I never had my binoculars to hand, Jonny did but they were always in silhouette. Having caught a couple of newly fledged Lesser Redpoll in the meadow in the autumn, we assumed that is what they were but Robin Griffiths tells me that there has been sightings of a couple of flocks of Siskin flying around the wood this autumn. That is pretty unusual for Ravensroost - we get the odd one in February / March time.  I will be putting a couple of nyger seed feeders up to see if we can attract them down in time for our ringing demonstration on the 12th November. ST/JC/EJ/CS/NS  

Saturday's  scheduled session at Somerford Common had to be postponed because of some unforecast rain. Being around on Monday, with the weather looking better, if a bit windy, I decided to see what was about.  I hate to say it, but the most interesting sighting of the whole morning was my first. As I arrived to set my nets, I noticed this large, black (it was dark), almost triangular, shape alongside an oak tree about 20m ahead of my net ride: I had never noticed anything there before.  As I looked, I realised it was a Wallaby. One has been reported by a few people but it was still an exciting find. It was clearly not bothered by my presence: it didn't move, even when I started hammering pegs into the ground, for a good 20 minutes. 

The ringing was consistent, if not spectacular.  Highlights were: a third Redwing for the autumn; a juvenile female Great Spotted Woodpecker; another 18 Goldcrests ringed and one retrapped and, finally, the arrival of some Long-tailed Tits after a very poor showing so far this year.  Of course, the bulk of the Titmice arrived as I was closing the nets to pack up for the day, delaying my departure just long enough for me to get caught in the rain. The list was: Great Spotted Woodpecker 1; Blue Tit 5(2); Great Tit 2(1); Coal Tit 1; Marsh Tit (1); Long-tailed Tit 8(6); Wren 4; Robin 5(1); Redwing 1; Song Thrush 1; Blackbird 2(1); Goldcrest 18(1); Bullfinch 1(2). Totals: 49 ringed from 12 species; 15 retrapped from 8 species, making 64 processed from 13 species.

As I was driving home I had to hammer on the brakes to avoid running over a Buzzard. It was sat on the road feeding on some carrion and they really cannot take off fast enough to play that game. ST

The original schedule was to carry out a session at Ravensroost on the Wednesday but, with an opportunity to get out with Paul Darby and the team (Michael and Alan) to check and clean out Barn Owl boxes instead, I opted to move the session to Thursday.  The Barn Owl session made for an excellent day. We checked on nine boxes: five of them showed positive signs of having had owls breeding in them this year; four of those held roosting pairs of Barn Owls; two had been taken over by Jackdaws; one had a Hornet's nest inside and one showed no signs of being used.  Having recently been given my schedule 1 access licence for Barn Owls and their pulli I wanted to make the acquaintance of the landowners and get their buy-in to my team ringing their birds next summer. We met two of them in our rounds, both of whom were extremely enthusiastic about "their" owls and happy for me to have access during the breeding season.  A good start: I would not want to presume consent, so very happy about it.  As we approached one of the boxes that proved to have held Jackdaws I saw a Little Owl scoot down from the branch above the box and disappear underneath it. It was a super sighting and I hope to get a chance to get closer to it next year.

So to Thursday. Jonny had the good fortune to see a Yellow-browed Warbler yesterday on Morgan's Hill. We know there have been good numbers along the east coast and, with easterly winds blowing over the last few days, several have ended up inland.  Unfortunately, none of them have found their way to Ravensroost (yet - always optimistic). With the winds changing to a southerly source for the rest of the week, hopefully they will remain around for a while yet. As it was, we had the benefit of catching our first two Redwing of the year.  These are the earliest that I have caught by six days: beating 19th October 2015 at Red Lodge.  

2016 10 13redwi

Alongside the Redwing we caught a juvenile Marsh Tit; our fifteenth of the year, getting close to our record of 16 in 2014, with two and a half months to go to the end of the year. It shows that there is a degree of stability in the population in the Braydon Forest.

2016 10 13marti

The list for the day was: Treecreeper (1); Blue Tit 5(2); Great Tit 4(1); Coal Tit 4; Marsh Tit 1; Long-tailed Tit 6(5); Robin 1(4); Redwing 2; Song Thrush 1(1); Blackbird 2; Chiffchaff 2; Goldcrest 14(1); Bullfinch 1. Totals: 43 ringed from 12 species; 15 retrapped from 7 species making 58 processed from 13 species.

One of the nicest interludes of the day was meeting a couple of young lads excluded from school and doing volunteer work with the Wildlife Trust. They were fascinated by what we were doing, hugely interested and enthusiastic, and seemed like perfectly nice people. It makes you wonder what they did to warrant exclusion (we didn't ask, that would have been too nosy). ST/JC

After a couple of weeks away from ringing, I snuck in a short session at Blakehill Farm to see if there were any lingering migrants around.  Due to some confusion about exactly where the cattle were roaming on the central plateau, I was confined to the perimeter road hedgerows for the session.  It was rather frustrating to see the large flocks of Linnets flying around the plateau and not to be able to set nets for them. Never mind, once the weather breaks, the grass stops growing and it gets stodgy underfoot, we will get the opportunity.

In the event, it was an interesting session. I caught 31 birds in three hours, but could only ring 28 of them. Three of the birds caught were Dunnocks but, unfortunately, they were all suffering with avian pox. If you see birds suffering from an obvious ailment like this, there is web-site where you can log the details. It says it is the Garden Wildlife Health site but, in fact, they are looking for information from wherever it is found. The address is:  http://www.gardenwildlifehealth.org/.

It is a collaboration between the BTO; ZSL, RSPB and FrogLife and they are trying to keep a close eye on diseases affecting our wildlife. In return, they will send you detailed information on what you have reported.  All three of the affected Dunnocks were juveniles: it is possible they were all from the same brood and that is why there was such a cluster, but that is just my conjecture.

2016 10 09dunno

I was joined for a while by Neil Pullen, the reserves manager for the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, and he was telling me that the hedgerows along the perimeter track are of pretty recent vintage. They are certainly high quality, being primarily a mix of Hawthorn and Blackthorn, and always do well for birds. The reason for the lowish catch on Sunday was twofold: the sun was out and shining on the nets and the wind got up at about 10:00 and, apart from the botheration of having to close the more exposed nets to keep them out of the hedges, made them more obvious than usual.

The list for the session was: Blue Tit 3; Great Tit 4; Wren 1; Dunnock 1; Meadow Pipit 1; Robin 2(1); Blackbird 1; Blackcap 1; Chiffchaff 1; Goldcrest 1; Goldfinch 2; Linnet 1; Reed Bunting 7; Yellowhammer 1. Totals: 27 ringed from 14 species and 1 retrap. Of the farmland species, we regularly catch Linnet, Meadow Pipit and, increasingly it seems, Reed Bunting. However, today's Yellowhammer was a first caught on the site. In fact, it is only the second time I have even seen them at Blakehill, and the first was actually not exactly on site but on the edge of the solar farm in the Chelworth industrial area.  The Trust have not cut the central plateau for hay this year: I wonder if the retained seed heads of the plants are what has attracted them in? It would be great to see a growing population of them at Blakehill. There were at least three of them flying around the hedgerow.

 2016 10 09yelha

As you can tell from the photograph, he is a stunning male. He is a bird of this year, and his tail tells a tale of a struggle to survive, with some dramatic fault bars across it;

2016 10 09yelhat

With the wind getting up and gusting strongly (not as forecast) I closed the nets at 11:00 and then spent the next three hours carefully extracting them from the hedges. Such is life but no harm done. ST

With the weather forecast being a bit variable for this period, rather than going to my farmland sites, I put in a couple of woodland sessions and did a bit in my garden as well.

Wednesday, 14th September: the Firs. I was joined by Andrew Bray for this session. Unfortunately, most of the migrants have long vacated the place: so no repeat of the Spotted Flycatchers from our last session. It was notable, however, for providing a good catch of Great Tit, in what has been a very poor year for them.  The list was: Blue Tit 1(1); Great Tit 10(3); Wren 1(1); Robin 7(1); Blackcap 1; Goldcrest 1. Totals: 21 birds ringed from six species; six birds retrapped from four species, making 27 birds processed from six species. One bird, a retrapped Great Tit, was originally ringed as an adult at the private Wood Lane site on the 30th September 2012: only my third ever solo ringing session and making the bird at least 5 years old. It has been caught on six separate occasions, alternating between each site (about 1km apart) until 2013, and subsequently caught only in the Firs.

The weather on Thursday, 15th September: was suitable for farmland ringing, so I arranged to go to Brown's Farm.  Unfortunately, my car decided to throw a bit of a wobbler, I had to abandon my plans and was, instead, confined to my garden. Not a lot of diversity, but it is good to see the Goldfinches returning from the fields. The list was: Blue Tit 1; Chiffchaff 1; Greenfinch 1; Goldfinch 23(1).  The Chiffchaff was the 648th member of that species I have ringed since I started in January 2009: but the first for my garden. I was inordinately pleased with the catch:

 2016 09 16chiff

On Saturday I was joined at Red Lodge by Charlie and Neil, plus Steph and her daughter Lilly.  Lilly is just six-years old and so interested in the birds and the ringing process, perhaps she will want to take it up, along with her mum. She is so well behaved and walked miles on Saturday without complaint. Steph is proving an invaluable scribe and will be joining as a trainee in the near future.  The list for the day was: Treecreeper 1; Blue Tit 6(3); Great Tit 3(2); Coal Tit 1; Wren 2(1); Robin 2(3); Song Thrush 1; Blackbird 1(1); Blackcap 7; Chiffchaff 1; Goldcrest 5.  Totals: 30 ringed from 11 species; 10 retrapped from five species, making 40 birds processsed from 11 species. The most interesting bird caught was a recapture of the Blackbird with the deformed upper part to the beak, ringed originally on the 21st August. When caught and ringed it weighed in at 81.6g. Upon recapture it weighed in at 92.2g: an increase in weight of 10.6g in 27 days. Perhaps it will manage to survive, despite its handicap. ST/AB/CS/NS/SB/LB

At this time of year I like to get out of the woodlands and onto the farms and meadowlands. Whilst my team doesn't have access to a Salisbury Plain migration mega-site, we do have some nice sites where you can catch good numbers of migrating birds.  Blakehill and Brown's Farms and Ravensroost Meadows, and the pond therein, are my favourite sites for this time of year.

In Ravensroost Meadows we usually manage to catch a few Swallows, and last year managed to catch a couple of House Martins as well. With the weather forecast being for a light breeze from the south, gusting stronger as the morning went on, I decided to just set nets that were protected by the high east – west hedges plus short nets across the causeway that bisects the open pond and another along the spit in the eastern half of the pond.  I was joined by Jonny Cooper for the session, and what a session it was!

The causeway across the pond is always interesting: it is where we usually manage to catch Swallows as they come to drink or hawk insects. We do catch them in the other nets, but this is the main hirundine net.  They arrived quite early on: there must have been over 200 skimming across the meadows and flying in and around the pond.  About 8:00 we caught our first two Swallows and three House Martins.  By 11:00 we had caught about 35 birds from a variety of species and were hoping we might make it to 40. 20 birds each is a nice size ringing session: little pressure and plenty of time for doing all of the biometrics required.  Then, despite the huge flocks of hirundines having moved on, to be replaced by much smaller flocks, things got really quite busy.  We seemed to be catching virtually every Swallow and House Martin in the vicinity – not to mention a really excellent number of Chiffchaffs.  By the time we finished processing our last birds at 13:30 (a Blue Tit, two Swallows and two House Martins) we had processed 92 birds.  This is the largest catch that has ever been taken in Ravensroost Meadows, and the second largest in the Ravensroost complex as a whole (I doubt we will ever surpass the 287 birds of the 4th December 2011 – it comprised a huge number of finches and titmice in large flocks, the like of which has not been seen in the wood since, attracted to a well-stocked feeding station).

Today’s catch comprised: Swallow 27; House Martin 16; Blue Tit 5; Great Tit 2; Wren 4(1); Dunnock 5; Robin 2; Blackcap 4; Whitethroat 1; Chiffchaff 20(1); Willow Warbler 1; Goldcrest 1; Chaffinch 1; Reed Bunting 1.  Totals 90 birds ringed from 14 species and two retrapped from two species, making 92 birds processed from 14 species.  

This was the largest catch of Swallows that my team has had, surpassing the 22 caught at Blakehill Farm on the 20th September last year. It is far and away our largest catch of House Martins: previously we had  caught just one on two occasions at Blakehill and five at Ravensroost Meadows last September.  The weather was virtually perfect: although the sun came out early on, the cloud cover increased from 11:00 onwards and this coincided with the hirundines hitting the net.

The Causeway Net:

causeway net

One of the beauties of extracting hirundines is that they have long wings and short legs: which means that they just sit in the pockets in the net and can be lifted straight out very quickly and easily: just a few seconds per bird.  

Juvenile House Martin:

2016 09 11houma

All of the hirundines caught were juveniles.  It is astonishing that not just their migratory behaviour is innate, but that the routes are hard-wired into their genome. Hence, the parents leave them to make ther own way. Given that the parents have two to three broods per annum, it is not surprising that they are left to fend for themselves but still remarkable.  In fact, the only definite adults caught today were one Dunnock plus the Reed Bunting and Willow Warbler.

As well as the birds caught there were flocks of Long-tailed Tit plus several Marsh Tit and Kestrel, Buzzard, Ravens, Jackdaws, Carrion Crows and Magpies in and around the meadows. There were a number of dragonflies flying around: a superb Emperor plus a number of Common Darter, intent on laying yet more eggs before they die off. Of course, it is not just birds that migrate: there were several Red Admirals making their way south - into the breeze. We also saw several Small Tortoiseshell,  Large White, Speckled Wood and one Common Blue. With Jonny running over an hour and a half late for his Sunday lunch, we were packed up and away by 14:00. ST/JC

With Jonny freshly back from Spurn, after adding to his already impressive list of species ringed (Common Tern, Knot, Yellow Wagtail, Redstart, Tree Sparrow, all added last week), we headed to Brown's Farm for a session of catching along their fabulous hedgerows.  The weather forecast was for a flat calm start, with the wind picking up later in the morning. Again, the forecast was completely accurate.  The catching was very regular until about 10:00, when it fell off considerably but there was still enough going on for us to keep the nets open.  We finally packed up at midday.

Noticeable in our catch this morning were a number of Yellowhammer sporting very large, bloated ticks:

2016 09 07yelha

This poor female Yellowhammer is clearly suffering from an eye-problem as well as that rather horrible tick just above. One thing I have in my ringing kit is a pair of needle forceps for dealing with these situations. It is very satisfing to remove these parasites and release the bird in better condition than when you caught it.

The list for the day was: Swallow 5: Blue Tit 6(1); Great Tit 2; Wren 2; Dunnock 15(1); Robin 1; Blackcap 4; Whitethroat 3; Chiffchaff 8; Willow Warbler 1; Goldcrest 1; Linnet 1; Bullfinch 4; Yellowhammer 9. Totals: 63 birds ringed from 14 species; two retrapped from two species, making 65 birds processed from 14 species.

One of the Great Tits was sporting a rather deformed beak:

2016 09 07greti

The upper part was normal (it doesn't look it in the photo) but the lower was quite visibly extended. It didn't seem to be doing it any harm: weighing in at a very healthy 20g.  

Overall, we had a really good session with a good catch of a wide variety of species. However, it could have been so much better. At about 10:30 a huge flock of Linnets landed in one of the hedgerows adjacent to our nets. We were excitedly waiting for them to respond to the MP3 lure when a number of things happened: a Buzzard flew up the path towards the nets; at the same time, a Kestrel flew along the hedge and had a quick hover, ensuring that everything flew off in widely dispersed directions but, essentially, away from our nets.  That was bad enough, but we were mollified by the catching of Swallows. However, the real downer happened at 11;30. We had just taken down one set of nets and were preparing to take down the final set when a small flock of half-a-dozen birds flew over the nets, landed on the path opposite them, then flew up into the top of the hedgerow behind the second set of nets. They were Yellow Wagtails. We have both been lucky enough to ring them elsewhere but not yet in Wiltshire, and not yet on my rings. This time the local Red Kite put in an appearance and they disappeared. We did have some great views of these glorious birds, but what could have been!!! ST/JC

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Wiltshire Ornithological Society was formed on November 30th, 1974, and has grown in recent years to more than 500 members.

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