West Wilts Group

Ravensroost Woods: Thursday, 13th October 2016

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.  

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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.

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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

Blakehill Farm: Sunday, 9th October 2016

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.

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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.

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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;

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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

14th to 18th September 2016: Various

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:

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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

Ravensroost Meadows - Sunday, 11th September 2016

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:

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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

Brown's Farm: Wednesday, 7th September 2016

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:

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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:

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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

Blakehill Farm: Saturday, 3rd September 2016

With my team for today being pretty inexperienced: Charlie having just started extracting; Neil (Charlie's dad) not (yet) part of the ringing team and Steph coming along for her first taster session, to see whether she would like to have a go at ringing, I decided to put just a few nets up. Also, as the weather forecast was for the wind to start low and gradually increase over the course of the morning, and for rain to set in between 11:00 and 12:00, I didn't want an inexperienced crew trying to get the nets down quickly.

Individual nets were set at three of the isolated bushes that ring the central plateau and three x two net sets were set along the perimeter track. My hope was that the field nets would catch a few Linnets and that the perimeter track nets might catch the Redstart that I have seen there on several occasions recently.  I was disappointed in the former aspiration but amply recompensed elsewhere. 

Our first couple of birds were two Reed Bunting: a sign of what was to come.  Our first round proper delivered half-a-dozen Reed Bunting but also two Whinchat and a juvenile Kestrel. It is only the second Kestrel I have caught since I started ringing independently. I gave it to Charlie to process, which rather made his day.

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In the second round we caught another good number of Reed Bunting, but also started catching Swallows and the wished for Redstart. It was a cracking juvenile male.  

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Plenty of Swallows and Goldfinches were flying around the site and we were lucky enough to catch some of each. The build up of each of these bodes well for some good catches over the next few weeks. The list for the session was: Kestrel 1; Great Spotted Woodpecker 1; Swallow 7; Whinchat 2; Redstart 1; Robin 1; Goldfinch 3; Bullfinch 1; Reed Bunting 19. Unusually, we had no retrapped birds but 36 ringed from nine species.  Catching 19 Reed Bunting in a session (all bar two of which were male) is a record for my team. The most we have had before in a single session was nine, also at Blakehill.

We closed the plateau-edge nets and took them down at 10:00, as the wind had got up as forecast, making the nets unusable.  The wind just blows straight across the plateau, with little to slow it down  We kept the perimeter nets open for another hour, as the hedging is thick and an effective windbreak, and took down as we saw the promised rain front coming closer.  The rain hit about 10 minutes after we left site. Timing! A special mention for Steph who took on the scribing duties and did a great job on her first session out with us.  It was really helpful and enabled me to focus on working with Charlie on his ageing, sexing and biometrics.  As a final aside, both Neil and Steph have asked to join the team as trainees, which is excellent news.  ST/CS/NS/SB

CES 12: Lower Moor Farm, Wednesday, 31st August 2016

With CES 11 being such a heavy session, with over 100 birds caught, I decided to enlist help from other members of the West Wilts Ringing Group.  Ian Grier and Andy Palmer augmented my team of Ellie Jones and Charlie Stockley (not forgetting his dad, Neil). Although it was a much quieter session than the last, the additional help was invaluable, as I could work with Charlie to continue his training on extracting birds, whilst Ellie, Andy and Ian got on with dealing with the other birds.

The highlight of the session was catching our second Green Woodpecker in eight days.  To put it into perspective, as a trainee I was lucky enough to extract two of them (one at Ravensroost, the other at Swindon Sewage Works) but wasn't allowed to ring either of them. Once I got my C-permit I was lucky enough to catch and ring one at my Wood Lane site on my first ever independent ringing session, subsequently I caught another at Lower Moor Farm in April 2014.  Having ringed those two, Ellie and Andy drew lots for the privilege and Andy won. It was his first, so he was happy about it.  This bird was an adult male, which you can contrast with the previous photo, which was a juvenile male.

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During a lull in our ringing activities, Ian noticed some commotion on the far side of Mallard Lake (our ringing station is in the picnic area opposite the lakeside house). We could see water shooting into the air. On looking through the binoculars you could see a large flock of House Martins dive-bombing the water and sending up plumes of water. It was quite remarkable. The water plumes were visible via the naked eye from some 200 metres away, so they must have been throwing up quite a lot of water.  Most of us will have seen, or seen film of, Swallows skimming the water to drink or pick off insects; none of us have ever seen anything like this activity with House Martins before.

The list for the session was: Green Woodpecker 1; Treecreeper 1(1); Blue Tit 2; Great Tit (1); Long-tailed Tit 1(2); Wren (1); Robin 5(2); Blackcap 1(5); Garden Warbler 1; Whitethroat 1; Lesser Whitethroat 2; Chiffchaff 8(1); Willow Warbler 3; Goldcrest 1; Chaffinch 1; Greenfinch 1; Bullfinch 1(2). Totals: 29 birds ringed from 15 species; 15 retrapped birds from 8 species, making a total of 44 birds processed from 17 species.

The catch died off after 11:00 and at 11:30 we closed the nets and took them down. ST/IG/EJ/AP/CS/NS

Ravensroost Wood: project session 5: 26th & 29th August 2016

Originally this session was scheduled for Friday and Saturday but I, somewhat fortuitously, didn’t feel up to the second session on Saturday and postponed it to Monday. Fortuitously because it started raining at about 9:00 on Saturday and then, soon after lunch, the monsoon arrived bringing the thunder and lightning with it.  I could have been caught in that, as the session was scheduled for me to be working solo. Jonny Cooper joined me on Friday and Andrew Bray on Monday, making both sessions very easy to manage. 

The list for the sessions was: Nuthatch 5; Treecreeper (1); Blue Tit 2; Great Tit 5(1); Coal Tit 3; Marsh Tit 1(2); Long-tailed Tit 2(1); Wren 5; Dunnock 2(1); Robin 13(7); Song Thrush 1; Blackbird 3(1); Blackcap 6: Chiffchaff 6(2); Goldcrest 1; Bullfinch 1.

Totals: 56 birds ringed from 15 species; 16 birds retrapped from 8 species, making 72 birds processed from 16 species. 47 of the birds processed, from 15 species, were juveniles.  All of the Titmice, except for the Blue Tits, had juveniles in the catch.  The lack of young Blue Tits continues to be a worrying situation: one not confined to Ravensroost.  However, the situation is variable across the country, with eastern counties seeing little difference from previous years, and western counties seeing a significant decline in fledged Blue Tits.  Although we have caught a few recently, and a few Long-tailed and Great Tits as well, there has been a definite reduction in breeding success this year.

The highlights of the catch were the Nuthatches. They have been calling and flying around the wood all year – but missing the nets. I don’t know why, but this time they seemed to find them.  Catching five Nuthatches in the wood, without a feeding station or lure to draw them in, is very unusual.

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It was very pleasing to catch another couple of this year's fledged Marsh Tit. The numbers are building up pretty well this year: already comparable with previous years, with the main catching period for them to come over the next four months.  They, unlike the Blue Tits and Long-tailed Tits, seem to have had a normal breeding season. ST/JC/AB