Tuesday 24th January 2023 – A record breaker!

Siberian Chiffchaff

With rain almost every day at the start of the month followed by recent night-time temperatures at or below freezing, ringing has not really been an option. However, a dry forecast with light north-easterly winds was enough to drag me out of bed at 06:30 for the trip to SML. Despite a heavy frost first thing and a chilly day, even with clear skies throughout, the wind strength and direction was perfect from the point of view of targeting Chiffchaffs around the sewage works.

Prudently, as it happened, I only erected four nets. This was due, in part, to my having to carry all the ringing gear onto the site. Having nearly bogged my car in the soft ground at the beginning of the month, I wasn’t about to risk it a second time. The ground is still very wet so I trudged down the absolute minimum of equipment. This all took a bit longer than usual and it was 9am before the first birds were trapped. Things really picked up once the sun reached the western side of the sewage treatment works at around 10am and it was non-stop from then on.

2nd Siberian Chiffchaff

In the end I processed 118 birds, a personal record for the site for me, including a record winter catch of 87 Chiffchaffs, two of which were tristis. To put the numbers into perspective, that’s one bird extracted, ringed, measured and weighed every two and a half minutes for the entire five hours the nets were open. Mouthfuls of coffee and the occasional bite of a sandwich had to be grabbed whenever the opportunity arose.

It’s a bit early in the season for any meaningful stats but, based on current data, my capture/recapture model is suggesting that this winter’s Chiffchaff population at SML could be over 250 birds! I’ve already trapped 147.

Totals: 87 Chiffchaff, 8 Firecrest, 6 Goldcrest, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 4 Robin, 3 Long-tailed Tit, 1 Dunnock, 1 House Sparrow, 1 Blue Tit.

Monday 2nd January 2023

The new floating bridge to Marsh Ride.

This was my first visit to SML for over a month due to prolonged cold, wet or windy weather combined with a lack of enthusiasm. The water table is now as high as it gets despite two recent breaches in the sandbar by the beach. The wooden bridge to Marsh Ride was floating in 1.5m of water, in urgent need attention and is and completely unsafe! Afterwards, I really struggled to get enough traction to drive my 4×4 off site. I’ll have to carry all the kit down by hand next time!

Since my last visit the BTO have introduced strict new hygiene protocols to avoid the spread of Avian Influenza. The new procedures include the regular use of disinfectant on working surfaces and equipment, a clean bag for each bird and spraying nets with disinfectant after use. Continuing to ring may be of crucial importance in monitoring bird populations and movements in relation to the spread of the disease but it is equally important that ringers do not inadvertently disperse the virus.

I am retired microbiologist, who received training on the handing of pathogens at Porton Down. This, coupled with knowledge of the hygiene standards required whilst I have been volunteering at a Covid mass-vaccination centre over the last 20 months, meant that most of the required processes were already wholly or partly in place. Contracting Giardia, a particularly nasty sewage-borne parasite, at South Milton a few years ago, had focused the mind and made me tighten my procedures so that only spraying the nets represents a significant change.

I used the latest BTO protocols for the first time yesterday. Not perfect but manageable. I sprayed the nets from the upwind side after furling to minimise my exposure and disinfectant use. I was already using one clean bag per bird so no change there. Other hygiene requirements are just common sense really.

Some ringers have expressed surprise on social media that the working strength disinfectant turns vegetation brown. Not really surprising, given that it is being used as a biocide! As SML is a wetland SSSI and the use pesticides and herbicides is prohibited, I spray the nets on the path beside the sewage works, outside the SSSI and on a track, which we have to mow regularly to keep clear. This eliminates any risk to the SSSI.

Despite it being a beautiful day, NW winds are not ideal for trapping Chiffchaffs at SML – it keeps them away from the nets. I still managed 13 though, including 1 UK control. Final totals for the day were: 1 Blackbird, 2 Blue Tit, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 13 Chiffchaff, 3 Dunnock, 4 Firecrest, 7 Goldcrest, 3 Long-tailed Tit, 2 Redwing and 6 Wren.

Another folly at SML!

The mound in Autumn 2021

Vic Tucker, the long-serving reserve manager at South Milton Ley, has never been renowned for seeking advice before embarking on new projects. So much so that he is often referred to locally as “Thick Tucker”, (or something similar but even more offensive)! So much of the management has either been ill advised, unnecessary or poorly executed. The latest saga involved the installation of a bench midway along the northern side of the reedbed.

What’s the problem with that I can imagine you asking? Well firstly, before any new project commences, there ought to be consultation with the management team, establishment of a need, agreement on location and equally importantly availability of funds. None of these basic criteria were met in this case and the first I knew about the project was when I noticed my spade had disappeared from the end of Marsh Ride. I use this to clear turf which tends to grow over the boards as summer progresses. Up until Vic’s intervention, it had survived without incident for eleven years. I located the spade, with its handle snapped in half about 200m further down the Ley where it had clearly been used to build a mound of earth. To this day Vic has never acknowledged helping himself to the spade or breaking it!

The newly installed bench perched on its pedestal

In September 2022, almost a year later a bench appeared on the said mound of earth, funded retrospectively by a member of the local parish council. All well and good you might think but the location chosen could not have been worse. There is only one 200m long section out of the entire 2,500m of perimeter path in the reserve which regularly floods when water levels are high. What better place to locate a bench than in the middle of this flood zone? Just to compound the issue, why not stick the bench behind a clump of willows just to completely block the view down the reedbed?

The access path upstream of the bench

The photo above shows the path upstream of the bench, where water levels were over the top of my wellies. The bench itself was sat on its earthen mount, now grassed over, and completely inaccessible from either direction. Another success story!

The bench in November 2022, completely inaccesible!

Tuesday 29th November 2022

Flooding at the seaward end of South Milton Ley with SW Water’s pumping station at risk on the northern shore.

Another sharp frost this morning but the principal cause of concern was the high water-level in the western reserve. Nick Townsend had told me that levels were rapidly approaching the highest recorded in living memory and that they were threatening to inundate South West Water’s Thurlestone pumping station at the seaward end of the SSSI. This could have resulted in the release of large quantities of untreated waste. Fortunately, Rory Saunders, Devon Birds’ principal contractor, was already working on the beach, excavating around the blocked outflow pipe from the adjacent South Huish Reserve. Once the compacted sandbar retaining the water in South Milton Ley was breached levels decreased rapidly and a panic was averted.

The submerged outflow from South Milton sewage works into the SSSI

Inland, the water had backed up to cover the outflow from the WWTW. Fortunately, there is about a 2m drop from the sewage works to the discharge point and sufficient head for operations to continue normally. I hadn’t intended to use Marsh ride, which traverses the reedbed, but, in the event, the access bridge across South Milton Stream was floating about 20cm above its supports. I had the foresight to restrain it, following a previous flood, otherwise the bridge would have been swept downstream and lost.

Despite that a gentle northerly breeze drifted 58 birds into the nets. 2 Blackbird, 1 Blackcap, 2 Blue Tit, 3 Cetti’s Warbler, 35 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 1 Firecrest, 3 Goldcrest, 3 Great Tit, 1 Long-tailed Tit, 2 Robin and 4 Wren.

November 19th 2022

Once again my motivation to keep the blog up to date seems to have faded as the month has progressed. I visited SML on the 19th November with reasonable success. I was greeted by the first frost of the autumn and icy mist net poles. Later in the morning an extremely noisy group of beaters and shooters started shouting and blasting away at pheasants on neighbouring farmland immediately to the north of the reserve. Avoiding the inevitable shower of lead and a couple of wounded birds, which made it into the SSSI, I’m pretty sure that any passage thrushes would have departed the moment the shooting started.

These pheasants originate from the shoot at Bantham, 2km to the north of South Milton Ley. I’ve no idea how many they release but it must be in the thousands given the number which end up in and around the reserve. Now I’m not adverse to the occasional roast pheasant but I do object to the indiscriminate release of millions of a non-native species into the British countryside. The dozens, which arrive at SML each autumn must have an adverse impact on the availability of food for other species and recent research has confirmed that they are likely to be preying on the reptiles and amphibians within the reserve. Whilst ringers around the UK are taking precautions to avoid contact with and the spread of avian flu, DEFRA’s abdication of responsibility in relation to the release of gamebirds is shocking.

56 birds were processed: 6 Blackbird, 3 Blue Tit, 1 Bullfinch, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 26 Chiffchaff, 2 Dunnock, 4 Firecrest, 4 Goldcrest, 1 Long-tailed Tit, 1 Magpie, 1 Redwing, 4 Robin and 2 Wren.

Saturday 12th November

Another relatively benign forecast saw Nikki and I arriving at SML about 30 minutes after dawn. In reality, it felt more like September and was shockingly warm for mid-November. After our last visit, I had already made the decision not to use the main reedbed ride for the time being, unless there is some indication of an increase in wintering Reed Buntings. The number of birds trapped there decreases rapidly as the reeds die back and dry out and a break in early winter gives me the opportunity cut back encroaching vegetation and to restore the ride back to its full width. It also enables me to maintain the boards, which gradually sink into the mud over time and, if unattended, end up invisible beneath vegetation.

In contrast, Crest Ride on the edge of the willow carr in the eastern reserve becomes increasingly productive as winter progresses.  I had managed to maintain the ride throughout the summer months and it took just 30 minutes to get the three nets set up from scratch with no “gardening” required. There were more fallen leaves than birds in the nets however but, despite this, 60 birds of 12 species were caught: 10 Blackbird, 6 Blue Tit, 1 Bullfinch, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 11 Chiffchaff, 6 Dunnock, 2 Firecrest, 4 Goldcrest, 3 Long-tailed Tit, 1 Redwing, 6 Robin, 9 Wren.

Thursday 3rd November 2022

I haven’t visited South Milton Ley for over a month, due in part to a week’s break at Portland Bird Observatory, partly to an ongoing respiratory condition and partly to the seemingly relentless period of wind and/or rain throughout October (see the chart above for the last week).

A recent change to my medication has resulted in a significant improvement in my breathing so I bit the bullet and decided to give it a go. I squeezed in a few hours this morning before the weather turned hostile again. With my long-suffering wife acting as scribe and bird bag porter, I was expecting to have to clear a lot of fallen vegetation. In the event, and considering the long gap since my last visit, there was very little to do apart from removing a couple of snapped willow trees which had fallen across the main path. The wind was low and, when the sun was out, it was pleasantly warm.

Male Firecrest

The reedbed nets were particularly unproductive, as is often the case at this time of year, but those closer to the sewage works produced the goods. A total of nine new Crests were ringed, including the first four Firecrests of the Autumn. The male in the photo above was easily aged as a bird of the year by the characteristic pointed tips to the tail feathers. Whilst the sun was out Nikki, the wife, spotted a fine male Migrant Hawker dragonfly, which sat still long enough for a photo. It’s getting late for dragonflies but common darter were present as well today.

Male Migrant Hawker at South Milton Ley 3rd November 2022

As the morning progressed the wind strength increased exponentially and one brief shower sent us scurrying for shelter. By midday it was just too windy so we packed up and headed for home.

29 birds were trapped: 6 Blackbird, 1 Blackcap, 3 Blue Tit, 5 Chiffchaff, 2 Dunnock, 4 Firecrest, 5 Goldcrest, 1 Great Tit, 1 Robin and 1 Wren.

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.