This is a blog which concentrates on the day-to-day bird ringing activities at South Milton Ley Nature Reserve, a 16 hectare reedbed in south Devon. The title reflects the fact that it takes me about an hour to drive to the site from my home and a further hour to set up all of the nets. This makes for some very early starts, particularly in the summer months!
If you stumbled across this website whilst looking for up to date information about the birds recorded here, at South Huish Reserve, South Efford Marsh, Thurlestone Bay or simply in the general area I recommend visiting Mike Passman’s excellent website: Thurlestone Bay Birds
For the last two autumns, I have been targeting southward bound Tree Pipits as they pass over SML. The realisation that they are suckers for tape lures playing their song, even in what seems like the most unsuitable habitat, tempted me into trying and, although catching them in a reed bed sounds unlikely, they could be tempted to settle in the tops of willows and eventually their curiosity would draw them down to the tape player in the grassy strip at the bottom of the net ride. Result – some ending up in the net. This year however, Tree Pipits were thin on the ground so, in mid-September, I switched my attention to Meadow Pipits, who suffer from the same fatal attraction.
The recommended method for trapping Meadow Pipits is to set three nets in a triangle around a bush and tape lure the birds in. There isn’t a suitable open space at South Milton so I tried the Tree Pipit method. So far this year it’s yielded 37 birds. Most pipits are trapped in targeted operations and few are caught by chance so, with such low numbers involved, I had no expectation of any recoveries. I was, therefore, pretty surprised (and excited) to receive a ringing recovery report last evening. My excitement was tempered by the realisation that the bird had only travelled 18km and that the recovery wasn’t going to add a great deal to our knowledge of the species. Still it’s the first ever Meadow Pipit control for SML and having a bird ringed and controlled the next day must also be a pretty rare event for the species. End result – a brief period of smug self-satisfaction!
After another cold, clear night I was greeted by a heavy frost this morning and, once I had scraped the ice off the mist net poles – the only real disadvantage of metal versus bamboo poles – things started quietly. Because of the cold I decided to use my minimum suite of six nets, all within 200m of the ringing station, which enables more frequent net rounds. Flocks of 500 Woodpigeon and 50 Jackdaws heading south overhead and groups of blackbird, redwing and fieldfare feeding on hawthorn berries around the reserve, gave some indication that there were migrants about and I might be able to lure a few into a net. However, despite my best efforts, the thrushes were elusive and soon departed.
The final total for the day was 36 birds of 10 species, including 9 re-traps and a UK ringed Chiffchaff. The highlight was 4 Cetti’s warblers, which brings the total for the species to 10 individuals in the last 5 weeks. New birds were: 1 Blackcap, 5 Blue tit, 3 Cetti’s Warbler, 9 Chiffchaff, 1 Goldcrest, 2 Great Tit, 3 Meadow Pipit, 1 Reed Bunting and 1 Wren. Also around the reserve: 1 Sparrowhawk, 2 Bullfinch, 3 Water Rail, 1 Green Woodpecker and, despite the frost, Red Admiral and Common Darter still about.
Receiving a ringing recovery report from the BTO always generates a moment’s excitement. In the case of Reed Warbler BF09952, this was tempered by the fact that I knew the bird was carrying a Dutch ring when I trapped it at SML on 22nd August 2017 and had been waiting for over 14 months for the details to arrive. The bird was a 1st year, ringed at Erlecom, Ubbergen, Gelderland, The Netherlands on 11th August 2017 and controlled at South Milton 11 days and 707 km later.
- Oak Bush Cricket Meconema thalassinum (female)
The long spell of dry settled weather continues but with higher winds and a significant drop in temperatures forecast I squeezed in a ringing session before the weather changes. There was little sign of passage, other than a handful of Siskins and a Redwing over, and there weren’t many birds on the ground either. Just 31 birds of 12 species trapped: 1 Blackbird, 5 Blue tit, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 8 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 5 Goldcrest, 1 Goldfinch, 2 Great Tit, 1 Long-tailed Tit, 1 Meadow Pipit, 1 Song Thrush and 4 Wren.
The highlight of the day was an Oak Bush Cricket – a new species for the reserve’s insect list, which now stands at 783!
Another glorious day at South Milton. A little too bright for optimum catching and with very little sign of passage either overhead or on the ground, I wasn’t expecting a great deal so I opened two additional nets in Crest ride. This brought the total net length to 126m, which is not far short of the maximum I can safely manage on my own. Crest and Marsh Rides are at opposite ends of the ringing area, 400m apart, so each net round is about 1km, which keeps me busy (and warmer) on cold winter days.
Cold wasn’t an issue today and I ended up with a respectable total of 75 birds of 15 species: 3 Blackcap, 13 Blue tit, 1 Bullfinch, 2 Cetti’s Warbler, 2 Chaffinch, 18 Chiffchaff, 2 Dunnock, 2 Goldcrest, 3 Goldfinch, 2 Great Tit, 11 Long-tailed Tit, 6 Meadow Pipit, 1 Reed Bunting, 5 Robin and 5 Wren.
It’s been difficult to summon up the enthusiasm to keep this blog up to date recently after a series of uneventful and uninspiring ringing sessions. I spent the middle part of September at Portland Bird Observatory, where, in the 5 days out of 12 when it wasn’t blowing a gale, I managed to trap just 45 birds. The Observatory’s grand total for the same 5 days was a meagre 135. Birds just didn’t seem to be moving.
It hasn’t been much different since I returned to Devon with 98 birds of 14 species trapped in three sessions at SML between the 26th September and the 9th October and this total includes a high proportion of resident species. Apart from a handful of Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps there were few migrants on the ground, although passage was clearly ongoing with groups of Meadow Pipit, Skylark, Siskins and hirundines overhead. One late Reed Warbler on 26th September proved to be just that, despite my best efforts to turn it into a Blyth’s Reed! I kept myself occupied by playing a Meadow Pipit tape beside a net on the edge of the reedbed. This is not an ideal setup for trapping the species, but it was reasonably successful with 23 ringed.
Totals for the three sessions were: 14 Blackcap, 7 Blue Tit, 2 Cetti’s Warbler, 1 Chaffinch, 14 Chiffchaff, 4 Dunnock, 2 Goldcrest, 1 Goldfinch, 4 Great Tit, 23 Meadow Pipit, 1 Reed Warbler, 4 Robin, 7 Swallow and 13 Wren.
News of a juvenile Isabelline Shrike, found on Thurlestone golf course yesterday, shows that the potential rewards are out there. Yellow-browed Warblers and crests have yet to reach Devon in any numbers and it was this time last year when the unprecedented influx of Firecrests began. Fingers crossed!
Spotted Flycatchers are one of the easiest species to age in the Autumn requiring only a cursory examination. First year birds have prominent pale tips to the greater coverts, tertials and upper tail coverts, all of which can be seen in the field and in the photo above. These pale tips and edges are absent in adult birds. By the following spring, after a complete moult in their winter quarters, adults and 1st years are indistinguishable.
The wind was a bit stronger than I would have liked first thing this morning but as I had a meeting with Natural England on site later in the day, I got the nets up anyway. Turned out to be fruitful as the breeze forced birds a lot lower than they had been in the recent good weather and a couple of 1st year Spotted Flycatchers in the net together was a bonus. These are generally restricted to the treetops and evade capture. By mid-morning the breeze had dropped and the cloud cover gone. With the nets now glaringly obvious in the sunshine, numbers tailed off. The arrival of a contractor to mow the paths around the reserve precipitated an early finish as the two nets in Willow Ride were blocking his access. A total of 48 new birds were trapped: 19 Blackcap, 1 Blue Tit, 11 Chiffchaff, 3 Reed Warbler, 9 Sedge Warbler, 2 Spotted Flycatcher, 2 Whitethroat, 1 Wren.
The drainage contractor has also been busy, levelling the spoil excavated last year from Horswell Ditch and scalloping the ditch banks in places. It looks pretty horrendous now, especially when compared to last months luxuriant vegetation, but the work had to wait until after the breeding season and at least we know that regrowth will not be a problem!
A bit of good news on the bird front as well. Whilst walking beside Ham Ditch, I heard the unmistakable calls of a juvenile Water Rail begging for food. I had speculated back in April that they might be breeding this year and this must presumably have been young from a second brood. Together with the Spotted Crake, also back in April, it shows what a difference a wetter reedbed makes. This was one of the topics discussed with the Natural England advisor as we are working together on proposals to construct sluices in the main drainage channel to restore and maintain the water levels.
Quiet again today. Didn’t even see a single hirundine! 41 new birds ringed: 18 Blackcap, 1 Blue Tit, 3 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 1 Great Tit, 8 Reed Warbler, 1 Robin, 3 Sedge Warbler, 2 Whitethroat, 2 Willow Warbler and 2 Wren. Also 2 Spotted Flycatchers on site and 120 Linnet, 6 Grey Wagtail and 1 Tree Pipit over.
Apparently, SML was crawling with birds on Thursday but, by the time I arrived early on Friday morning, after a clear moonlit night with low winds, everything had moved on. That’s life! I live too far away to get there every day and, with 460 miles of commuting to and from the site in August, cost is an issue as well. Anyway, it was a pleasant sunny day with a steady trickle of birds and a good selection of warblers, the best of which was an adult Grasshopper Warbler. Unlike young Groppas in the autumn, which are in pristine plumage, the adults are worn and tatty and this bird was no exception. (See the extensive wear to the tail feathers and the distinctive undertail coverts below).
I did spot that it had moulted some body feathers and the two inner tertials, which, for me, feels like an achievement!
The upper arrow shows new feathers on the mantle, the lower arrow the new middle tertial – broader and darker than the old outer one.
44 birds were trapped: 3 Blackbird, 18 Blackcap, 1 Chiffchaff, 1 Garden Warbler, 1 Grasshopper Warbler, 5 Reed Warbler, 2 Sedge Warbler, 1 Whitethroat, 7 Willow Warbler and 1 Wren.