West Wilts Group

Blakehill Farm, Saturday, 23rd April 2016

With the central plateau at Blakehill being out of bounds now, until after the hay is cut in July and the breeding season is over, Fraser and I decided to have an experimental session in the fields beyond the new ponds.  With the wind forecast to come from the north, we set the nets on the south side of a couple of hedgerows. The downside was that we could not set them close to the hedge, because it was fenced off a good metre away from the edge of the blackthorn.  It certainly had a bit of an impact, with plenty of bird movement along the hedge, particularly Linnets, that missed the nets. That is not to say that it put any sort of damper on the session: we caught some nice birds and had an excellent spell of birding in the intervals and after we had packed away the nets.

The catch comprised: Blue Tit 3(1); Wren 2; Song Thrush 1; Blackbird 2; Lesser Whitethroat 2; Chiffchaff 3, Willow Warbler 1. Totals: 14 ringed from 7 species and 1 retrap.

The ringing highlight of the day were the two Lesser Whitethroat caught and ringed: my first of 2016. 



Ironically, one of the main birding highlights was a Curlew.  It flew into the field where we had set up and landed about 40m away from one of our net sets. They are, of course, a key breeding species for Blakehill and a major reason for us not ringing out on the central plateau for the next 3 months. Our next highlight was a stunning male Whinchat.  This was seen in the first bushes west of the perimeter track from the Chelworth side of the reserve.  I had taken Fraser round to show him where else we ring on the site. Walking up to the gate we saw an upright chat-like bird on the top of the bush. It kept flying out from its perch and returning to the same spot. When I got the binoculars on it, it was a stunning male Whinchat.  About 2m to its left, in the same bush, was a male Stonechat. Nice to see them both together, to get a clear perspective on the differences.

We had several Swallow flying around the fields and, although we didn't see them, both Whitethroat and Redstart were heard singing in the bushes. ST / FB

The Firs, Thursday, 21st April 2016

In February I took advantage of a break in the awful weather to visit the Firs for a ringing session. Over the course of 2.5 hours, and using 6 x 18m nets, I managed the massive total of two retrapped Blue Tits before giving it up as a bad job.  The only bright spot in the morning was a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker calling in the wood.  So it was with a degree of trepidation that I organised a session there this morning. Even more concerning was that I was being joined by Fraser and my trainee, Daniela. I was hopeful we might get more than one bird to process each. In the event it was a decent session with 30 new and 3 retrapped birds.

The highlights were the two Marsh Tits: one a new male bird and the other a retrapped female bird, originally ringed in Webb's Wood in February 2013. Although they are highly sedentary, generally moving only a 100m or so from the natal area, this bird has moved just over 1km from where it was first ringed - putting it in the 10% of this species that do move further away - but it has had three years in which to do so.  This bird was in advanced breeding condition: her brood patch was fully developed and blood vessels were visible through the body wall.  Most of the birds, including the migrant warblers, were showing clear signs of coming into breeding condition.

The list for the day was as follows: Blue Tit 2(1); Great Tit 4; Coal Tit 4; Marsh Tit 1(1); Wren 4; Robin 3(1); Song Thrush 1; Blackbird 2; Blackcap 3; Chiffchaff 5; Goldcrest 1. Totals: 30 new from 11 species and 3 retrapped from 3 species. ST / DD/ FB

Ravensroost Woods, Saturday, 16th April 2016

Just what you don't want, when you have the spring ringing demonstration at Ravensroost Woods, is unforecast rain. That is what we woke up to. With the public due to arrive for 9:00 we arrived on site at 7:30 and set up the nets. Whilst setting up the rain continued to fall, light but almost continuous. At one point we had a short shower of sleet.  We kept the nets furled until 15 minutes before the start which, fortunately, coincided with the rain stopping. Unfortunately, the unseasonably cold north wind did make life less than pleasant. My team for the morning were my trainees Ellie Jones and Jonny Cooper and, adding a bit of gravitas to the proceedings, Fraser Bell from the Edward Grey Institute.  The organisation of the public side of the event was all down to the Swindon Wildlife Group: Kathleen Wyatt, Jane Baldwin and the volunteer warden for the site, Robin Griffiths. Despite the weather, we had an excellent turn out of 26 adults and 2 children.

To ensure that we would at least have a couple of Blue and Great Tits to show people, I cheated a bit and set up a couple of feeders on Tuesday. I needn't have worried, we had a good spread of species to show.  The team were brilliant: there was a steady stream of birds delivered for me to process, which meant that there were no gaps in the presentation.  Everybody in the audience got a good look at some stunning birds, some explanations on identifying, ageing and sexing them and a chance to get close and get some excellent photographs.

Robin was totally surprised to see us catch four Dunnocks (3 new and 1 retrap) inside the wood.  We have caught the odd one in the wood before but this is the largest catch of them inside Ravensroost Woods.  This is likely to be a result of the continued coppicing of the southern end of the wood, opening up a much larger portion than has been the case for many years.  The coppiced areas are looking really warbler friendly this year and I look forward to seeing what else drops in. We have caught the odd Whitethroat inside the wood, perhaps more will turn up this year (there are usually plenty in the hedgerows of the meadows). Also, the coppice looks perfect for Garden Warblers.  I am really looking forward to this year's breeding season.

The list for the day was: Blue Tit 5(2); Great Tit 2(1); Marsh Tit (1); Wren 2; Dunnock 3(1); Robin 1; Blackcap 2(2); Chiffchaff 2; Willow Warbler 2; Chaffinch 1. Totals: 20 new from 9 species and 7 retraps from 5 species.

One of the retrapped Blackcaps was a control. It was a British ring but not one of mine. It will be interesting to find out where he was ringed. Our next Ravensroost ringing demonstration will almost certainly be on the 3rd September and will focus on the meadows and the ponds.  This was the seventh formal ringing demonstration I have done in the Ravensroost complex since I started them in March 2013.  When you add in the 30 sessions I have done at Tedworth House, and the other ad hoc events at Langford Lakes, Lower Moor Farm and Blakehill Farm since 2013, that is a serious commitment to helping the public get close to, and educating them on, our birdlife.  ST/EJ/JC/FB

Tedworth House, Wednesday, 13th April 2016

Today was my monthly session at Tedworth House. The weather was perfect and the catch was reasonable for the site. As Dave Turner, of the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, organises works with volunteers, to open up the canopy and encourage undergrowth, so the catch is slowly improving in number. Nobody can doubt the quality of some of the birds caught at the site on other occasions: notably Firecrest and Mistle Thrush. Today did not deliver that sort of highlight, but it was a very enjoyable session nonetheless. I had a wonderful audience of staff members, residents and visitors over the course of the morning.  They were treated to a good variety of birds - although they missed the Jay we caught first thing. Unfortunately, it didn't miss me and I have the scars to show for it.

The list for the session was: Jay 1; Blue Tit 1(1); Great Tit 2; Coal Tit (3); Wren 1(1); Robin 1(1); Blackbird (1); Blackcap 3; Chiffchaff 1; Goldcrest 1; Chaffinch 1. Totals 12 new from 9 species and 7 retrapped from 5 species.

This was the second catch of Blackcaps for the year: the first was a female, then a male and then another female. So, unusually, the score for the year so far is three females to one male. I would expect the reverse. ST

Blakehill Farm, Tuesday, 12th April, 2016

Jonny and I took advantage of the predicted calm weather to get a session on the eastern side of Blakehill Farm. In the hope that there might be a few migrants popping in to the site, we set nets alongside the isolated bushes on the edge of the central plateau and along the perimeter track. We were lucky enough to catch our first Willow Warbler of the year. It was so drab that we had to really check to ensure it wasn't a Chiffchaff with long wings.

Willow Warbler:


The day turned into a bit of a Linnet fest, with some 24 out of the 35 birds ringed this morning being of that species. We also had six Reed Buntings, two Chiffchaffs, a Chaffinch, a Great Tit and the aforementioned Willow Warbler.  Unusually for this site, we had no retrapped birds.

When we arrived on site it was very misty. The surreal sound of Skylarks singing from the ground, all over the plain, was wonderful. As the light improved, a solitary Curlew took off from the hedge by the perimeter road, about 300m away from our net sites, calling as it flew east to west across the reserve. I visited Blakehill virtually every day last week and it seems that the number of Curlew on the site is currently one.  At about 8:00 a couple of Swallows flew over. Then, as the sun came out, the Skylarks took off and the display was spectacular.  ST/JC

Somerford Common, Saturday, 9th April 2016

With the weather forecast for the day being a bit hit and miss, we went for a session at Somerford Common. I was joined by Ellie and Jonny.  We kept it simple, in case we needed to take down quickly, with a run of nets either side of the path, up the hill. There were quite a few birds around but we didn't manage to lure too many of them in. However, there were a couple of highlights: our first Blackcap of the year and a returning Chiffchaff ringed as a juvenile in August 2014.

The list for the day was: Great Tit (2); Long-tailed Tit 1; Wren 1; Dunnock 1; Robin 3; Blackcap 1; Chiffchaff 2(2); Goldcrest 3(1). Totals: 12 new from 7 species and 5 retraps from 3 species.

We decided to start packing up at about 11:30 and, just as we finished, a few drops of rain started to fall.  Unfortunately, some idiot had indulged in a bit of pointless vandalism, smashing the pole gate to the site.  Pointless because the entrance is already blocked with large granite rocks preventing access (and making my life considerably harder as I now have to lug my gear to the top of the hill for my normal summer / autumn catching area).  The Forestry Commission really had no choice, as vandals were continually breaking the gates and thieves were then using the easy access to steal timber. Possibly they were the same people.  Coincidentally, Somerford Common is also the only site I winter feed where I have had bird feeders stolen.  What is it about some of the people that go there? ST/EJ/JC

Langford Lakes, Wednesday, 30th March 2016

This Wednesday session was part of a family day organised between the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust and Help4Heroes, to mark the repair of existing, and production of two new, tern rafts for the Lakes reserve. Volunteers at Help4Heroes had undertaken to help the Trust staff with the work to benefit the Terns and this was organised by way of a "Thank you".  With Mike and Rob unavailable I agreed to run the ringing demonstration at the day.  I was helped by Ian Grier, Jonny Cooper and Andy Palmer for the session: my thanks to them.

One of the issues with ringing demonstrations is always the start time.  When we are ringing normally, we set the nets before sunrise and the most active catching time is usually the first couple of hours after dawn. This session started at 10:00, so we set the nets and opened them at about quarter to the hour. Under the circumstances, we had a reasonable catch: Treecreeper 1; Blue Tit 1; Great Tit 2(1); Long-tailed Tit (1); Wren 1(1); Blackbird 2(2); Chiffchaff 2; Goldcrest 1; Goldfinch 1. Totals: 11 new from 8 species and 5 retrapped birds from 4 species.

The catch was spread out across the entire session, and the children (and their parents) got the opportunity to get very close to a good number of bird species.


They had a day of making things and seeing things they hadn't done or seen before.  Felting, making and launching their own small rafts, helping launch the new tern rafts - and with a first class barbecue lunch to fuel the experience. ST/IG/JC/AP

Ravensroost Woods, Friday, 25th March 2016

With the forecast for the Easter weekend being the norm for a bank holiday, I took advantage of the fabulous weather today to get out and run a session in Ravensroost Woods.  Unlike the last session in the meadows, this session did not yield a single Blue, Great or Coal Tit. I was working solo and, with the rain this week, some of the rides were extremely muddy, so it was pretty hard work.  The catch was fairly small, but interesting nonetheless: Nuthatch 1; Marsh Tit (1); Long-tailed Tit (2); Wren 2(4); Robin 1(1); Song Thrush 1; Blackbird 2; Chiffchaff 4(1); Goldcrest 1(1). Totals: 12 new from 7 species and 10 retraps from 6 species.

Many of the birds are coming into breeding condition. Of the Chiffchaffs, those that could be sexed were males. This is normal: the males arrive and set up their territories before the females arrive on site. As well as the Chiffchaffs, the new Goldcrest, the Long-tailed Tits, Marsh Tit, Song Thrush, retrapped Robin and two of the retrapped Wrens were showing as males. Both of the Blackbirds and the Nuthatch were females and were already developing a brood patch, whereas the new Goldcrest, a female, was not yet showing any sign of defeathering.

There was a lot of birdsong in the air: a lot more than I managed to catch, but it was a delightful morning in a lovely spot with plenty of birding to do in the quiet periods.  A male Sparrowhawk hunting was a highlight. There were half-a-dozen Brimstone and one Peacock butterfly gliding along the main ride and a few bees looking for early flowers. ST