Wednesday 22nd September 2022

Another pleasant and uneventful ringing session. Warm, dry and with low winds, there had been little reason for migrants to stop overnight and the catch was a mixture of passage and resident species.

56 birds of just 10 species processed: 2 Blackbird, 19 Blackcap, 2 Blue Tit, 14 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 3 Great Tit, 6 Meadow Pipit, 4 Robin, 5 Wren.

Thursday 15th September 2022

I haven’t written about it before because my trip to South Milton Ley on the 24th August was not particularly memorable. In fact, for the end of August, it was a forgettable ringing experience with numbers well down on normal for the time of year. 26 birds of 9 species were processed: 1 Blackbird, 1 Blackcap, 1 Jay, 1 Long-tailed Tit, 4 Reed Warbler, 3 Robin, 10 Sedge Warbler, 2 Willow Warbler, 3 Wren.

Since then, I have spent an even less productive week at Portland Bird Observatory, where strong southerly winds and rain either prevented ringing altogether or inhibited passage when the nets were open. Back on home turf at SML yesterday, I knew there would be some work required before I could open the reedbed net rides. The reeds are at their maximum height for the year and just starting to die back. This makes them prone to falling over en masse whenever there is rain and wind leaving a soggy jumble along the length of the ride.

Once cleared, ringing was steady and uneventful. I discovered that I walked a total of 10.83km doing net the rounds yesterday for 47 birds! Dominated by Blackcaps the catch also included the first Meadow Pipits and Goldcrest of the autumn and a tardy Reed Warbler, which I scrutinised closely!

47 birds of 14 species processed: 1 Blackbird, 14 Blackcap, 2 Blue Tit, 5 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 1 Goldcrest, 1 Great Tit, 1 Great Spotted Woodpecker, 8 Long-tailed Tit, 2 Meadow Pipit, 1 Reed Warbler, 5 Robin, 2 Song Thrush, 3 Wren.

South Milton Ley Nature Reserve, Five-Year Report and Management Plan 2022-26

A new Five-Year Report and Management Plan 2022-26 for South Milton Ley Nature Reserve has been approved by Devon Birds’ Council. The new Conservation Advisor, Graham Burton, a former RSPB Reserves Manager with considerable experience of managing reedbeds, has had a significant input and will be taking responsibility for future documents, a task which I am glad to be relinquishing. Nick Townsend’s contribution, both in practical terms, in relation to monitoring seasonal and short-term changes in water levels, and in considering options for restoring the water table, has also been invaluable.

Commercial reed cutting at South Milton Ley in 1989

No more reed cuts!

The principal change in direction involves the cessation of winter reed cuts from now on. This may come as a shock to all those who have turned up to assist with this labour-intensive process in the past. It has been agreed that small scale rotational cutting has a place but only because it brings in some structural and floristic diversity; it does not, on its own, arrest succession and can actually reduce the number of breeding birds in recently cut areas.

Cut reeds stacked against the walls of the old, reedcutter’s cottage in 1989.

It has also been agreed that dredging of the drainage ditches will cease and channels will be allowed to establish their own depth and routes. Over time, this should reduce their depth leading to a more natural flow and a wetter reedbed. Those hardy individuals who regularly turn up for the winter reed cuts may not have escaped entirely as it is likely that vegetation in and fringing the drainage channels will need to be cleared periodically.

The 2019 reed cut – one of the last!

The management team will now be concentrating their attention on options for diverting some of the flow in South Milton Stream back into the eastern Reserve, where historical ditching has significantly lowered the water table. Nick and our favourite contractor Rory Sanders are due to visit to investigate the levels later this week. For those of you with time on your hands I have made the full document available online at (PDF) South Milton Ley Nature Reserve, Five-year Report and Management Plan 2022-26 (researchgate.net) This can either be read online by clicking on “Full text available” or downloaded via the down arrow beside the “More” button. I only posted the document at the end of last week and it’s already been read 55 times. If you have any (constructive!) comments or suggestions for the future, please let me know.

Monday 15th August 2022

Rainfall radar 14:15am 15th August 2022.

An inevitable consequence of the introduction of a hosepipe ban, I knew that the prolonged hot, dry spell was forecast to break this week and a cursory glance at the weather radar at 04:15 this morning would have been enough to send most people straight back to bed. However, ringers spend a lot of time studying weather and years of experience taught me that, despite acres of blue on the chart, less than 0.5mm/hr were being predicted. In reality, virtually no precipitation actually reached the ground.

A pity in a way, as I was hoping that a heavy shower might have dropped a few migrants, particularly as Aquatic Warblers seem to be popping up in reedbeds everywhere else across the SW. The last one recorded at South Milton was way back in 2011 and was the 10th bird I ever extracted from a mist net. As the new trainee, I definitely wasn’t going to get to ring it though! On the whole, migrants were far from obvious today. Playing a Tree Pipit tape didn’t entice a single bird towards a net either.

There were compensations. My Marsh Ride nets stretch across the reedbed for 48m and are bordered on their northern edge by South Milton stream, a boundary path and scattered hedgerow trees. I have been aware for some time that some migrants moved from tree to tree along the hedge rather than through the reedbed. Taking advantage of a natural gap, I have been able to clear a short ride and install a 6m superfine net. This is just beginning to prove its worth and today’s bonus bird was my first redstart trapped at SML for three years.

48 Birds trapped today: 3 Blackcap, 4 Blue Tit, 8 Chiffchaff, 1 Garden Warbler, 1 Redstart, 10 Reed Warbler, 4 Robin, 6 Sedge Warbler, 6 Willow Warbler, 1 Whitethroat and 4 Wren.

Wednesday 10th August 2022

Keeping the blog up to date hasn’t been my highest priority recently. There’s only so much you can write when the catch is composed of the same species as last time. However, after a relaxing five-day break at Portland Bird Observatory, I’m sufficiently recharged to start writing. Many thanks to the warden, Martin Cade, both for putting up with three generations of my family, including my 5 year-old granddaughter, for the second year in a row and for giving me free run of the nets in the Obs. garden.

Back to South Milton Ley. The grass was cut yesterday! At last! It makes the net rounds so much easier. That was the highlight though. Blistering heat and a desiccating northerly wind made ringing uncomfortable and conditions were marginal at times today. Combined with a lack of migrants, I packed up early! Just 25 new birds and 4 re-traps of 12 species: 1 Blackbird, 4 Blackcap, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 2 Chaffinch, 5 Chiffchaff, 1 Great Tit, 2 Long-tailed Tit, 1 Magpie, 4 Reed Warbler, 2 Robin, 2 Sedge Warbler, 2 Willow Warbler and 2 Wren.

Wednesday 27th July 2022

Yellowhammer

Temperatures were much more civilised today. Despite this the reedbed is rapidly drying out and I was able to walk across the entire width without wellingtons for the first time in years! Whilst this affords some relief to my feet in the hot weather, the groundwater levels are not yet low enough to inhibit the growth of vegetation on the access paths. This fact seems to have escaped the attention of the largely absent reserve manager. Now over six weeks since the last cut, the grass, docks and other plants are about 18 inches high and hold enough predawn condensation to thoroughly soak my trousers and feet.

Ringing was steady with 82 birds of 15 species processed: 3 Blackbird, 13 Blackcap, 3 Blue Tit, 1 Bullfinch, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 10 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 2 Great Tit, 10 Reed Warbler, 2 Robin, 9 Sedge Warbler, 1 Whitethroat, 20 Willow Warbler, 5 Wren plus 1 Yellowhammer.

Biodiversity Update – July 2022

Dryad’s Saddle, Cerioporus squamosus

Back in April last year, I wrote about efforts and progress in documenting the biodiversity at South Milton Ley. This partnership working continues, with many gaps still to fill, but has confirmed the presence of hundreds of species of flies, moths, beetles, fish, reptiles, mammals and, of course, birds many either threatened or of conservation concern. It has also significantly increased the number and scope of individuals and organisations likely to spring to the reserve’s defence if the habitat were threatened in the future.

There have been a few small gains since last April but mainly as additions to groups that were already well studied. Yesterday I photographed a fungus growing on the trunk of a small, dead Elm. With the aid of Google, I was able to make an educated guess as Dryad’s Saddle, Cerioporus squamosus. This was subsequently confirmed on Twitter by Dr. Richard Broughton, an ecologist at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. This brings the fungal species list for the reserve up to the grand total of three!

Stump Puffball, Lycoperdon pyriforme

The only other fungal species I have identified are Blushing Bracket, Daedaleopsis confragosa and Stump Puffball, Lycoperdon pyriforme. So, if there’s anyone out there from south Devon with an interest in mycology, who’d be prepared to have a look around the 18.2 hectares of the reserve, please get in touch. In reality, most of the reserve is reedbed so I would expect that the much smaller areas of damp woodland around the margins would be the most productive.

Blushing Bracket, Daedaleopsis confragosa

On a similar note, we currently have no information on lichens or mosses within the reserve and, on the zoological side, non of the invertebrate phyla, apart from Arthropods, have been studied. If you, or anyone you know could help with these (or other, even-more specialised areas of biodiversity) get in touch and you’ll be welcomed with open arms.

Wednesday 13th July 2022

No time for photos today. A steady flow of birds throughout the six hours the nets were open kept me busy. Luckily, given the temperatures in recent days, a layer of cloud in the morning kept things civilised. Nevertheless, it was like sitting in a sauna by midday and the 90 minutes it takes me to take down all ten nets seemed like an eternity. 84 birds of 14 species were trapped, including the first Willow Warbler and Whitethroat of the autumn.

Totals: 5 Blackbird, 9 Blackcap, 2 Blue Tit, 3 Cetti’s Warbler, 25 Chiffchaff, 3 Dunnock, 4 Great Tit, 14 Reed Warbler, 4 Robin, 3 Sedge Warbler, 2 Song Thrush, 1 Whitethroat, 1 Willow Warbler, 9 Wren.

Tuesday 5th July

A hot and humid slog of a day. It started at 05:30 with extensive hacking back of vegetation to clear the net rides. At this time of year, the Hemlock Water Dropwort is dying back and unable to support its own weight. A bit of wind or heavy rain and the whole lot collapses into the reedbed rides. The drying seed heads on this umbellifer could have been designed to snag mist nets and must be removed carefully to avoid damage. My rechargeable hedge trimmer makes the work easier but it still takes time to clear all 50 metres. To add insult to injury, one of the willows beside the ride had put on a spurt of growth and the weight of the new leaves and branches was causing them to sag below the level of the top shelves, also risking entanglement and damage to the nets.  After a 400m round trip back to the car to collect a set of extendable loppers, the problem was resolved (at least until next year).

The net rides outside of the reedbed required minimal maintenance but it was still about 07:30 before all the nets were up. I had opened 156m, just about the max I can safely manage alone. If it were to get too busy, I always have the option of furling some of them. It may not sound a lot but, when I’m operating on my own, which is the norm for me, 70+ birds in the six hours I have the nets open represents one bird extracted and processed every 5 minutes. Today a 75 birds were trapped: 2 Blackbird, 12 Blackcap, 3 Blue Tit, 3 Cetti’s Warbler, 21 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 2 Great Tit, 10 Reed Warbler, 7 Robin, 2 Sedge Warbler, 12 Wren.

I finished off by confirming breeding of Common Blue Damselfly, the 13th species of Odonata to be identified in the reserve.

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!