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Blakehill Farm "Festival of Flight": Saturday, 19th August 2017

Following the late cancellation of last year's event due to bad weather, it was great that the weather was considerably better for this year.  Unfortunately, it was still very windy; however, the wind was coming from WSW and was largely blocked by the high hedges that edge the fields opposite the Whitworth Centre, where I set my nets.  For the first time in the many years I have been going to Blakehill, the footpath that runs from the Whitworth Centre to the ponds has been cleared and opened up: it made a cracking net ride. It nearly produced the bird of the day: I was doing my first net round and as I approached the very last net a Spotted Flycatcher flew down and landed on the fence post to which my net was tethered. It then flew back towards the bushes and hit the net - but bounced out. A shame.

As it was a "Festival of Flight", it was a great shame that bad luck and the weather rather reduced the filight element to my bird ringing demonstration.  Due to the engine failure on one of the Spitfires, necessitating the grounding of the entire flight whilst they were all checked and overhauled, the Battle of Britain Flight cancelled their fly past. Also, the wind was gusting up to 30mph, making it too dangerous for the static hot air balloon to be inflated (instead we were "treated" to the operator firing off the flame-throwers every thirty minutes or so).  The wind meant that there were very few butterflies around (although I did seem to have quite a few Speckled Wood along my net rides - but they were no entry to the public).  Robin Griffiths did find a Brown Hairstreak - but that was over on the Chelworth side of the reserve. 

The problem with public ringing demonstrations usually boils down to one thing: the start time.  This event was to run from 11:00 until 16:00.  Usually at 11:00 the number of birds dies off and we make a decision on when to take the nets down, not when we start catching.  I had arrived and set up early (not that early: first round at 7:30) but in fact the catch was pretty light first thing, and started to beef up as the morning progressed.  My best catch of the day was an adult, male Swallow.  None of my nets were set in what I would consider a Swallow-catching position, so it was a very pleasant surprise and my first Swallow of the year.  Unfortunately, I caught it at 8:30, before the public had arrived. However, the ringing demonstrations went extremely well. Every round I had several birds to show to the public: and every time I returned with some birds to ring, a large crowd gathered to see what was going on.  I always take the opportunity to show anyone interested how to safely hold and release a bird, particularly youngsters.  Let's face it: far too many ringers are getting old - and enthusing young people to get involved is the way forward for the ringing scheme.  With only four or five birds per round, it meant I could talk about the scheme, the biometrics we take, moult in birds and migration. People are always surprised when you show them an 8g Willow Warbler and tell them that this bird will spend the winter south of the Sahara desert, over 2,000 miles away.   I got lots of positive feedback from members of the public and from the Trust. There was only one complaint: so many people were crowding round to see what was going on that not everybody could get as close as they wanted.  Next time I will have to have a stage and a camera!

The list for the day was: Swallow 1; Blue Tit 17(2); Great Tit 12; Wren 2; Dunnock 2(1); Blackbird 2; Blackcap 1; Whitethroat 9; Lesser Whitethroat 1; Chiffchaff 5; Willow Warbler 4; Chaffinch 1; House Sparrow 1.  Totals: 58 birds ringed from 13 species, three birds retrapped from two species, making 61 birds processed from 13 species.  Again, a huge proportion of the birds were fledged this year.  In fact the adults were the Swallow, the House Sparrow and Chaffinch; two of the Dunnocks and Whitethroats, one each of the Blackbirds, Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers.

My final two rounds yielded mainly Blue and Great Tits, so I changed my spiel to "Who has the bottle to be bitten by a Blue / Great Tit?"  Funnily enough, the children were somewhat less interested, which gave plenty of adults an opportunity to take the bird from me and release it. I will stress: no bird was held for longer than strictly necessary to process it, pass it to one other and release it, as I would do with any new trainee.  All birds flew away strongly, with no issues.

The Trust must have been delighted at the turn out: over 1,000 people attended. Astonishingly in this day and age, there was no charge, just a request for donations and revenue from food sales.  The field behind the Whitworth Centre held a number of displays: covering the transition of Blakehill from wartime aerodrome to the nature reserve it is today; a Trust stand selling their produce (apple juice and freezer packs of Hogget meat from their own flocks); a tethered falconry display; a BugLife display; a small theatre housing a jazz band and singers doing war-time (and some later) standards; the hot-air balloon display; a display of 1940's vintage cars and clothing modelled by the re-enactment team plus an astonishing number of the Trust's female staff dressed in land girl style, and did their hair in the 1940's fashion: goodness knows how much electricity was used curling those locks).  The Whitworth Centre hosted a recreation of an RAF operations room from the Battle of Britain.  Every now and again, to announce the start of their next talk / demonstration, the RAF reenactment team would crank up their air raid siren: the cattle in the adjacent field clearly felt some affinity with it, as they would join in the noise.

Unfortunately, none of my team were available to help at this event: so it was a hard day's work. I was fortunate that I wasn't inundated with birds, but it did make it a very long day: from 6:30 until 19:30, by the time I had finished.  As I was leaving, just to rub it in to a somewhat tired and grumpy old ringer, I had lovely views of a couple of Redstart in the hedgerows along the perimeter track. They had successfully ignored my lure all day. ST

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