Friday 9th April 2021 – A little bit of quality

Adult male Cirl Bunting

I’m not keen on cold mornings and was not exactly overjoyed whilst clearing ice from the mist net poles and ringing table at 06:30 today. However, despite the low temperature, conditions were almost perfect for ringing with virtually no wind at all first thing. Unfortunately, there were virtually no birds either! Just 24 were trapped in a six-hour session and fourteen of these were re-traps. There was little evidence of passage of any kind apart from a solitary Grasshopper Warbler reeling away somewhere in the reedbed and a lone swallow which moved through later in the morning.

It wasn’t all bad though. Two of the re-traps were resident male Cetti’s Warblers and another four were local Chiffchaffs returning to their breeding site for the second or third year in succession. Of the new birds, the highlights were an adult male Cirl Bunting and a late Siberian Chiffchaff, both of which were trapped in nets beside the STW. There cannot be many places in the country where a ringer can trap Cetti’s Warblers, Cirl Bunting and Siberian Chiffchaff in the same ringing session.

Siberian Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita tristis

The lack of birds gave me the opportunity to start spring cleaning the boards across Marsh Ride. These gradually disappear under a thatch of grass if left untended, which makes it all too easy to misjudge where their edges are. In the interests of my personal health and safety, I like to cut away the grass to expose the boards. This is a slow process, using edging shears to slice through the matted roots along both sides of the net ride, a total distance of 96 metres. Once completed, the cut material must be raked to one end of the ride for disposal. It’s surprising just how heavy wet, matted turf is! All that remains now is for me to repeat the exercise, using hand shears, and cut the remaining 48 metres between the boards along the middle of the ride. This will enable me to set the bottom of the net a little lower in future, rather than having to avoid birds in the bottom shelf potentially encountering cold damp vegetation. Final totals were: 2 Blackcap, 3 Blue Tit, 2 Cetti’s Warbler, 8 Chiffchaff, 1 Cirl Bunting, 2 Long-tailed Tit and 6 Wren.

Tuesday 30th March 2021. Back in business!

The first stage of the easing of the current lockdown restrictions on travel came into force yesterday and, armed with a copy of an email from the BTO making it clear that voluntary work and environmental monitoring are both exempt from the covid 19 restrictions, I left the boundaries of Plymouth for the first time in four months and made my way to SML.

The bridge at Marsh Ride prior to being dragged back across the two metre gap

I wasn’t sure what was going to greet me, knowing that the bridge to Marsh Ride had been swept off its mountings by floodwater back in December and half-expecting some of the rides to be blocked with fallen branches and vegetation. In the event, things weren’t too bad. Unlike the first lockdown, there had been little plant growth during the winter and nets were quickly erected beside the sewage works and in Blaca Ride. Accessing Marsh Ride was more problematic but I had come equipped and managed to haul the heavy wooden bridge back across the two metre wide ditch and onto its mountings about thirty minutes later. With hindsight, it was lucky that the bridge hadn’t been swept away completely and Nick Townsend and I will hammer in posts to secure it and prevent a recurrence.

Back on its mountings!

From the ringing point of view, things were less than perfect. The north-easterly breeze, blowing down the valley, was stronger than forecast and there was no evidence of visible migration. Despite this, a pair of Reed Buntings, Chiffchaffs and the odd Blackcap were singing in the reserve and two male Cirl Buntings were vocal just outside the boundaries. Twenty nine birds were trapped, just over half of which were new, including 9 Chiffchaff and a Willow Warbler. The re-traps were dominated by Dunnocks and Wrens but also included 2 Cetti’s Warblers, and 2 returning Chiffs, a Willow warbler and a Blackcap. Final totals were: 3 Blackbird, 1 Blackcap, 2 Cetti’s Warbler, 11 Chiffchaff, 4 Dunnock, 1 Long-tailed Tit, 1 Robin, 1 Willow warbler and 5 Wren.

Tuesday 1st December 2020

Sunrise at South Milton Ley

Today’s weather forecast was too good to ignore, with a light northerly breeze expected. Any wind direction between NW and NE is ideal for trapping Chiffchaffs by the sewage works at SML as the midges (and birds) concentrate on the leeward side of the plant where I have 30m of nets. Unfortunately, the prevailing SW wind usually means that the birds gather frustratingly on the other site of the works. Nothing is ever perfect though and the bright sunshine made the nets a little too obvious resulting in a lower catch than last Thursday, although another 19 Chiffs were processed, including the first Siberian Chiffchaff of the winter.

Siberian Chiffchaff

The other highlight was a 1st year male Sparrowhawk, caught in the bottom of Blaca net by just one leg. I approached it cautiously, not wishing to fall foul of its flailing talons or bill but, in the event, it was extracted quickly and without any blood spilled. I wasn’t so lucky when I processed it. A momentary lapse of concentration enabled it to latch the talons of its right foot onto the end of my right index finger. This is not the first time this has happened and I have had to be extricated from the grasp of a particularly aggressive Kestrel chick in the past. However, with no one else to assist and the bird increasing its grip every time I tried to free my hand, I had to use some initiative or let the bird go without weighing it. Fortunately, I was able to hold my pen in my mouth and use the tip to gently prise the hind claw off my finger whereupon the bird let go!

1st year male Sparrowhawk

Final totals were 36 birds with 28 new: 1 Blue Tit, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 18 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 1 Siberian Chiffchaff, 1 Firecrest, 1 Goldcrest, 1 Reed Bunting, 3 Robin, 1 Sparrowhawk and 5 Wren

Friday 27th November 2020


Unlike some other ringers in the South Hams, I had decided that, although permitted, travelling to my ringing site during the Covid crisis constituted an unnecessary journey and I have been twiddling my thumbs at home for the last few weeks. However, given a welcome break in the weather and the knowledge that other visitors to the site are few and far between, I finally succumbed to temptation and travelled to South Milton for a dawn start today. Unfortunately, the forecast of an overnight frost and low winds turned out to be woefully inaccurate with a steady force 4 NE breeze blowing down the valley, which is at the upper limit for such an exposed site. On a positive note, the wind had prevented a frost and overcast skies made the nets less obvious.

Birds waiting to be processed – different colours = different nets!

As is usual at this time of year, things started off slowly and gradually picked up as the morning progressed. Chiffchaffs dominated the catch, with two Firecrests providing the highlight. The last bird trapped was a female Great Spotted Woodpecker, which got its revenge for the indignity by drilling my knuckles as I extracted it.

Woodpecker damage!

Final totals were 56 birds of which 46 were new: 5 Blue Tit, 1 Chaffinch, 33 Chiffchaff, 2 Firecrest, 2 Goldcrest, 1 Great spotted Woodpecker, 6 Long-tailed Tit and 6 Wren.

Wednesday 4th November 2020

After two weeks of seemingly endless gales and rain, I managed to squeeze in a morning’s ringing before the next national lockdown starts tomorrow. It was a cold start with the first frost of the autumn and the mist net poles were covered in ice when I arrived, but things gradually warmed up despite a northerly breeze blowing down the valley. Ringing was steady but not very exciting. Crests seem to be thin on the ground this year but at least there were a few Chiffchaffs about, including 3 returning wintering birds – two from 2019 and 1 from 2018. The highlight was five Cetti’s Warblers, four of which were new birds. This brings the year’s total so far up to 22 individuals, which may be a record for SML. I’ll have to check!

A couple of Sparrowhawks, which appeared to be hunting as a pair close to Marsh Ride, kept me on my toes, as did a sighting of a stoat scuttling across one of the paths in the same area but my presence kept them away from the nets. Woodpigeons were much in evidence as well with at least a thousand heading south during the morning, together with about 20 Skylark and a couple of Siskins. Final totals were 46 birds of which 29 were new: 1 Blackbird, 4 Blue Tit, 5 Cetti’s Warbler, 15 Chiffchaff, 3 Dunnock, 4 Goldcrest, 2 Great Tit, 1 Great spotted Woodpecker, 2 Long-tailed Tit, 2 Robin, 1 Song Thrush and 6 Wren.

Friday 16th October 2020

Lesser Redpoll

With a scattering of transatlantic and eastern vagrants in western Europe and high numbers of Yellow-browed Warblers reported from Shetland to Land’s End, I was cautiously optimistic this morning. Unfounded optimism as it turned out. Crests and YBW being conspicuous by their absence. There were good numbers of Chiffchaffs though, including the first returning bird of the winter, and today’s highlight was the first Lesser Redpoll I have ringed at SML. Six Redwing and a single Fieldfare were feeding on berries in the hedgerows but were extremely mobile and avoided the nets. In the end I reached a respectable total of 52 birds of 13 species, 47 of which were new: 1 Blackbird, 1 Blackcap, 4 Blue Tit, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 31 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 1 Goldcrest, 3 Great Tit, 1 Great spotted Woodpecker, 1 Lesser Redpoll, 3 Meadow Pipit, 1 Song Thrush and 3 Wren.

Friday 9th October 2020

I squeezed in a few hours this morning before the weather deteriorated again. I wasn’t expecting much as persistent north-westerly winds are the least productive direction on the south coast during autumn.  It was very quiet with only 24 birds of 8 species trapped, 17 of which were new. The highlight was three new Cetti’s Warblers, all female. Totals:  1 Blackcap, 3 Blue Tit, 3 Cetti’s Warbler, 8 Chiffchaff, 1 Great Tit, 1 Meadow Pipit, 3 Robin, 4 Wren.

Tuesday 29th September 2020 – Last chance saloon!

Jet stream forecast for 30th September 2020 (mph) – image from

With an intense jet stream barrelling towards southern Britain and forecast to loop around the whole country for the next couple of weeks, trapping an area of low pressure, it was today or nothing in ringing terms. Glorious sunny conditions, low winds and civilised temperatures prevailed and things got off to a good start with a Water Rail the first bird trapped in one of the nets beside the sewage works. I had to leg it as these rarely stay in a net for long, their large feet enabling them to run along a shelf and straight out of the end. It’s been a while since I’ve ringed one of these and I had forgotten just how strong their leg muscles are.

Water Rail – 1st year (left) and adult (right)

The bird was a first year, aged by the off-white streak running from the base of the upper mandible to the upper part of eye, a white chin and fawn iris and sexed as a female, based on a wing length of 116mm. Compare this with an adult, trapped in December 2018, with breast and chin slate grey and a reddish iris.

Excitement over, things settled down. Numbers were low and, in contrast to my last visit, Blackcaps were completely absent. With things tailing off, I packed up at midday. In the end 39 birds of 10 species were trapped: 3 Blue Tit, 2 Cetti’s Warbler, 20 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 3 Goldcrest, 2 Great Tit, 5 Meadow Pipit, 1 Robin, 1 Water Rail, 1 Wren.

Monday 21st September 2020 – A record breaker!

Living almost an hour away from South Milton Ley means that my ringing sessions require a degree of planning and lack the spontaneity of a local site where nets can be set up at short notice if the weather is favourable. Consequently, much time is spent studying wind and rain forecasts in an effort to select the best opportunities. With a light north-easterly breeze overnight, today seemed like my best shot for the week and with a scattering of early Yellow-browed Warblers from Shetland to Land’s End, I arrived full of optimism.

After a brisk start, things normally tail off as the morning progresses but today the birds kept coming without a pause. Six nets were just about manageable, although I had to break out extra bird bags at one point. Despite the numbers, there was little variety and no sign of anything more exotic than usual. It was somewhat frustrating to watch the first Water Rail of the autumn bounce straight out of the net in Marsh Ride but that’s life! There was little time for regrets though and 123 birds were processed in seven hours, a day record for me at the site, and one bird extracted, ringed and processed every 4 minutes! I didn’t even manage to grab a sandwich until there was a lull at around 2pm.

Chiffchaffs dominated the catch with smaller numbers of Blackcaps and Meadow Pipits making up the bulk of the rest. One of the Meadow Pipits was carrying a UK ring. Let’s hope it had travelled more than the 15km of my last control! The final tally was 123 birds of which 119 were new: 15 Blackcap, 15 Blue Tit, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 63 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 2 Goldcrest, 2 Great Tit, 15 Meadow Pipit, 3 Reed Warbler, 2 Robin, 1 Sedge Warbler and 2 Wren.

Wednesday 16th September 2020 – evening

I received the following from Dave Scott – “did a quick impromptu roost last night on the boardwalk for swallows. Minute I arrived could see the reedbed was buzzing with them feeding. Must have been a hatch of something. Literally tens of thousands filled the whole valley from the ground to hundreds of feet up! Anyway closed nets rapido as they started to go in but still ended up ringing 89 in total. Only six adults in that batch. Had zero bycatch of warblers so think most of the Reed and Sedge are gone now.”

A short video of the flock can be seen on Facebook here, although I don’t know how long it will be available for.