June 2022

So far, June has proved to be a month of mixed fortunes. On Tuesday 7th June, the most benign weather forecast for a week saw me arrive at South Milton Ley at 05:15. The Met Office had predicted just a 10% chance of a light shower around dawn, so I wasn’t surprised when it started to rain after I’d got the first four nets up. Furling these, I retired to the car to sit it out. Two and a half hours of constant rain later, I finally emerged into a well-watered world. The persistent rainfall had caused a lot of reed and hemlock water dropwort to fall into Marsh Ride and it was a slow, soggy process to clear the vegetation and unfurl the nets. It was after nine am before I processed my first birds. In the end just 17 were trapped, with 9 new and 8 re-traps.

This was not the start to the month that I’d hoped for. Things picked up however, on the 14th, when I received a long-awaited email from the BTO. Way back in September 2021, during a visit to Portland Bird Observatory, I was persuaded that I should apply for my A-permit. After ringing over 13,000 birds it was probably about time to progress! This proved to be a slow process, due to several factors including my trainer being ill, the independent assessor taking two months to fill in his part of the application form and the Ringing Standards Select Committee losing two members and being unable to operate.

To cut a long story short, the RSSC finally approved my application, commenting ““The members of RSSC all commented on the excellent quality of your references and your excellent level of experience.” Whoopee! It’s been a long wait, 9 months from start to finish, for a process which should only take about six weeks. In reality, it’s not going to make much difference. Almost all of my ringing in Devon is done alone. It will enable me to have full control of my data and order my own rings, which will make things much more streamlined.

Two subsequent visits to South Milton Ley, on the 15th and 23rd, were much more productive, resulting in two of the highest totals I have ever had at the site in June. It was demanding work though, with 10 nets to cover and the most distant of these around 400m apart. I reckon I must have walked about 10km each day during the net rounds. Totals for the month so far are:

169 birds of 19 species were trapped. Of these 131 were new and 38 were re-traps. New birds included: 12 Blackbird, 22 Blackcap, 13 Blue Tit, 1 Bullfinch, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 37 Chiffchaff, 7 Dunnock, 1 Greenfinch, 6 Great Tit, 1 House Sparrow, 1 Linnet, 1 Long-tailed Tit, 6 Reed Warbler, 13 Robin, 1 Sedge Warbler, 8 Wren.

Whilst the totals are pretty impressive by my modest standards, 113 of the 131 new birds, or 86%, were this years’ juveniles, suggesting that the breeding season so far has been pretty successful!

May 2022 – Summary

Each May I live in the hope that I will ring a good number and selection of migrants at SML. The reality this year (and every other year) has been a large number of re-traps, both of resident species and returning migrants such as Blackcap and Chiffchaff, whilst new birds and passage migrants have remained elusive. I have to accept the fact that, given reasonable weather, there is little reason for birds to linger or even stop at South Milton on route to their breeding grounds. Consequently, I have struggled to find the enthusiasm to keep the blog up to date.

However, 96 birds of fifteen species were trapped this month, with 45 new birds, 50 re-traps and one UK control Reed Warbler. Adults and juveniles of resident species such as Blackbird, Dunnock, Long-tailed Tit, Robin and Wren made up 75% of the new birds with just 11 migrants amongst the total.

SpeciesNew BirdsRe-trapsTotal
Blackbird4913
Blackcap369
Blue Tit044
Cetti’s Warbler033
Chiffchaff459
Dunnock6410
Goldfinch303
Great Tit112
Great-spotted Woodpecker101
Jay101
Long-tailed Tit718
Reed Warbler257
Robin6511
Sedge Warbler235
Wren5510
Total455196

Thursday 5th May 2022

Back in the field after a relaxing break at Portland Bird Observatory. There was little evidence of migration at South Milton Ley with just 25 birds trapped. Only 10 of these were new, including 3 Blackcap, 2 Chiffchaff, 1 Sedge Warbler, 1 Jay and 1 Great Spotted Woodpecker. The re-traps were mostly returned breeding Blackcaps, Reed Warblers, Sedge Warblers, Chiffchaffs and two local Cetti’s Warblers. The Jay and Great Spotted Woodpecker were the last two birds to be caught and I managed to extract and process both of them without personal injury!

Wednesday 13th April 2022

Not much evidence of passage today either! Just 16 birds trapped of which 11 were new: 8 Blackcap and 3 Chiffchaff. The male Blackcap above briefly caused me some confusion when I noticed how brown its crown was, at least until I twigged that it was covered in pollen!

Saturday 9th April 2022

The first ringing session this month at South Milton Ley. A frosty start with very few migrants visible eventually warmed up and produced 21 birds, 12 of which were new. These included my first two Willow Warblers of the year plus 2 Blackcaps and 2 Cetti’s.

It’s a foolish birder who relies on leg colour alone to separate Willow Warbler from Chiffchaff in the field but when you see legs this colour in the net it’s a safe bet it won’t be a Chiff!

Wednesday 23rd March 2022

Female Cirl Bunting – 23rd March 2022

A scheduled meeting with Nick Townsend, Vic Tucker and Graham Burton, one of Devon Birds’ two new Conservation Advisors, saw me taking the opportunity to arrive at dawn and get some nets up. I had a good four hours before the others turned up to start their tour of the reserve. The intervening hours weren’t the most productive I have ever spent, with just eleven new birds out of a total of seventeen, but there was enough variety to keep me on my toes and a surprise at the end.

The wintering collybita Chiffs all seem to have departed, including the obese individual I trapped last time. These have been replaced by local breeders, already with what seem to be well established territories. Three Siberian (tristis) Chiffs found themselves in the nets by the sewage works again. These were all re-trapped birds that had been present throughout the winter and, like the bird caught last week, all were having the avian equivalent of a bad hair day, moulting body, mantle, head and tail feathers. At this time of year the moulting process, with the olive edges of the retained flight feathers becoming more obvious, can make them look less like tristis but the brown head, prominent white eyestripe and lack of yellow on the breast and around the vent makes it easy to confirm their identity.

Three moulting Siberian Chiffchaffs – 23rd March 2022

I was going to say that the fact that these birds were in the middle of their pre-breeding moult was also a pretty strong indicator that they were from the east, where the breeding season doesn’t really get going until June. Then a dead-ringer for a collybita chiff, equally tatty and in the same stage of moult as the tristis, ploughed into a net. It remains my ambition to discover where these wintering birds come from. Wherever it is, there doesn’t seem to be much ringing!

Moulting collybita? Chiffchaff – 23rd March 2022. Any guesses where it might be from?

In between photographing the Sibes, to keep the Devon Birds records people happy, and removing their moulted body feathers from my sweaty hands, I processed a 1st year male Sparrowhawk, a female Cirl Bunting and, right at the end, a nice male Coal Tit. Surprisingly, this is the first Coal Tit I have ever seen at SML let alone ringed. I tried to string it into a migrating Continental bird but there was just too much olive on the mantle for that!

Coal Tit – 23rd March 2022

Final totals: 11 Chiffchaff, 1 Cirl Bunting, 1 Coal Tit, 1 Dunnock, 1 Great Tit, 1 Sparrowhawk and 3 Wren.

March 14th 2022 – A Chiffchaff smorgasbord

Moulting Siberian Chiffchaff

A beautiful spring day, only let down by a lack of birds. Out of 20 trapped this morning just five were new and only one of these was a migrant. There was a real mixture of Chiffchaffs present, identified by their ring numbers, including returning local breeders, lingering wintering birds, and one particularly scruffy looking Siberian tristis. The weight of one of the wintering Chiffs had increased from a portly 8.7g at the end of January up to a colossal 11.2g today, the heaviest I have ever encountered. Anticipating a protest from the recording software, (correctly as it happens!) I had checked the weight on two sets of scales, both of which were calibrated last week. Blowing the bird’s breast feathers apart revealed that its belly was yellow with fat. If it doesn’t depart soon it won’t get off the ground!

The Siberian Chiffchaff, which was first trapped on 21st December 2021, had managed to avoid recapture until today and what a sorry looking specimen it was. As the snow doesn’t clear from most of their breeding range until well into May, these eastern birds have a delayed pre-breeding moult relative to western european birds and most winters one or two remain at South Milton Ley until late April before departing. Todays’ bird was moulting its head, body and tail feathers and won’t be winning any beauty contests until at least mid-April!

The same bird back in December 2021

March 5th 2022

Male Firecrest

The driest, sunniest day for some time with an ideal north-easterly breeze was only let down slightly by the wind intensity, which was borderline for the most exposed net rides. Nevertheless, thirty birds were trapped, dominated as usual by Chiffchaffs. These were a mix of lingering, wintering birds and returning, local breeders. Some of the returning females, identified by their ring numbers, were already losing feathers from their brood patches and were particularly porky, weighing in at over 10g. Two female Blackcaps were trapped as well, several weeks earlier than local breeders usually begin to return. Perhaps these were wintering birds on their way home to central Europe. A relaxed morning’s ringing was rounded off by the first Firecrest of the year and final totals were: 2 Blackcap, 4 Blue Tit, 17 Chiffchaff, 1 Firecrest, 3 Goldcrest, 1 Great Tit and 2 Long-tailed Tit.

Finally, I know I bang on about how excessive ditching has lowered the water table in the reedbed and how Nick Townsend and I are doing our best to restore the floodplain but, if you look at the depth of the ditches in the following three photos and the density of dry reed stems, it’s pretty obvious that the deeper the ditch the fewer the reeds.

Deep ditch – hardly any reeds
Medium ditch – 100m downstream – increased density of reed
Shallow ditch – a further 100m downstream – healthy reedbed!