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.
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.
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.
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 glorious, calm morning greeted me today with temperatures that would have been described as an “Indian summer” back in the days when the climate was more stable. Bird-wise, things were less favourable, although at least three Spotted Flycatchers and a Siskin indicated that there had been some passage overnight. Despite my best efforts these managed to avoid the nets all morning as did many of the other species present. I was expecting to pack up early again with only eighteen birds ringed in the first two hours. Unusually however, things picked up later in the morning and the total ended up at 50 birds, 47 of which were new: 15 Blackcap, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 19 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 2 Goldcrest, 1 Greenfinch, 1 Great Tit, 5 Meadow Pipit and 4 Wren.
I think it is fair to say that autumn migration at SML this year has been less than spectacular with lower numbers and less variety than usual. So much so that it has taken me five days to summon up the enthusiasm to document my visit last Saturday when just 34 new birds were ringed: 3 Blackbird, 15 Blackcap, 1 Bullfinch, 4 Chiffchaff, 2 Dunnock, 2 Reed Warbler, 2 Robin, 2 Sedge Warbler, 2 Willow Warbler and 1 Wren.
Today started more promisingly with around 40 Blackcap and 30 Chiffchaff on site. The second bird in the net was a female Firecrest, the earliest autumn bird I have trapped at SML. After a brisk start things suddenly deteriorated when a tanker turned up at the STW at 8am and pumped very noisily for the next four hours, driving all the birds out of the area and forcing me to pack up at 11. The final total was just 36 new birds: 15 Blackcap, 1 Chaffinch, 9 Chiffchaff, 3 Dunnock, 1 Firecrest, 1 Reed Warbler, 5 Sedge Warbler and a Tree Pipit.
August has been a month of extremes with a heatwave at the start, followed rather unseasonally by two named storms, and concluding with one of the coldest bank holidays on record. It certainly felt more like the end of October when I arrived this morning. With the weather so unsettled and a busy diary I have to grab whatever opportunity arises to ring at South Milton but the heavy rain since my last visit had flattened a lot of vegetation into Marsh Ride, which had to be cleared before I could get the nets up. It always seems to take longer than I expect and what should be a thirty-minute job can sometimes take nearly an hour.
Nevertheless, with sunrise at 06:30, the first birds were being processed by 07:30. Nothing spectacular to report with the reedbed proving particularly quiet. However, the nets around the perimeter were more productive producing a steady catch of, mostly male, Blackcaps together with a few Willow Warblers and Chiffs. Highlights of the day were two Tree Pipits, my first Whitethroat for the year and a single juvenile Linnet caught in the reedbed!
On a non-avian note, I spotted a new plant species for the reserve, growing out of one of the perimeter paths, Cyperus eragrostis or Pale Galingale, a non-native garden escape.
58 new birds of 12 species: 28 Blackcap, 1 Blue Tit, 5 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 1 Linnet, 6 Reed Warbler, 1 Robin, 1 Sedge Warbler, 2 Tree Pipit, 1 Whitethroat, 7 Willow Warbler and 4 Wren.
A brief lull in the recent unseasonal strong winds and torrential showers forced my hand and I made an early start. Things did not go well initially. I was late getting the nets up as I was using my brand new Ecotone net, to replace one a badger destroyed last month, only to find that one of the net loops was threaded through the net about a metre from the end. Keeping the 18m net under tension with one hand whilst trying to unravel it with the other was a pig on my own and I didn’t get all six nets open until about 7am. Dave Scott’s Landrover was parked up by the boardwalk but I couldn’t get up to speak to him before the rain set in at about 9am so I don’t have his totals yet. I managed 38 new birds in the end, half of which piled into the nets by the STW when it started to rain. I ended up sat in the car, festooned with bird bags, ringing and processing them before releasing them out of the window!
New birds: 9 Blackcap, 5 Blue Tit, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 6 Chiffchaff, 3 Reed Warbler, 1 Robin, 2 Sedge Warbler, 7 Willow Warbler and 4 Wren.
With the weather predicted to deteriorate significantly by the end of the week, I took a chance and, despite a forecast of heavy showers, arrived on site just before 6am. I managed to erect the three nets closest to the ringing station, leaving these furled, and cleared fallen vegetation from Marsh Ride before the first shower hit. This passed after about thirty minutes and all the nets were up and open by 8am.
When the weather is unsettled like this, I rely on a rain alarm app. on my phone, which sounds when precipitation is within 20km. I could see another band of heavy showers about an hour away and was well prepared for its arrival. Unfortunately, the phone signal at SML is poor and drops out altogether during heavy rain but I managed (just!) to get all the birds out and the nets furled before it arrived. Retreating to my car and, with bird bags hanging from the rear-view mirror, I was able to process and release them via an open window.
This was a real deluge and it was after 10am before I ventured out to open (and dry) the nets again. Unsurprisingly there were few birds around and things tailed off rapidly, so I packed up early and headed for home.
Final totals were 27 birds and one UK control Reed Warbler with: 1 Blackcap, 1 Blue Tit, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 7 Chiffchaff, 2 Reed Warbler, 1 Robin and 15 Sedge Warbler.
Dogs are not allowed into South Milton Ley Nature Reserve. During my research for the South Huish management plan, I collected a number of peer-reviewed articles relating to disturbance to wildlife resulting from dog walkers and their animals. Without exception, these showed an adverse effect even when dogs were on a lead.
In 2005 English Nature produced a comprehensive study of the impact of dogs on nature conservation, which found that amongst wildlife “dogs, especially those off a lead, stimulate a greater behavioural response than walkers” and also noted that “dogs flush more incubating birds than walkers without dogs, and dogs can kill well grown chicks”.
This correlates with a study produced in 2009 by the University of Hull for the Humber Nature Partnership, which revealed that dog walking caused significant disruption with free roaming (off the lead) dogs causing more disruption than any other activity on the Humber coast except for low flying jet aircraft. In 2007 an important study of woodland trails was produced by the University of New South Wales by Dr Peter Banks and Jessica Bryant, which showed that “dog walking caused a 41% reduction in the numbers of bird individuals detected and a 35% reduction in species richness compared with untreated controls.”
It has long been understood that human activity can disrupt wildlife but the study found that while humans walking alone induced some disturbance this was typically less than half that induced by dogs. A further study conducted in New Zealand by Baudains and Lloyd also confirmed that of all recreational activities that were monitored, dog walking caused the most disturbance to wildlife. The presence of dogs creates anti-predatory responses and on small nature reserves can cause a 40% reduction in bird species across the whole reserve.
Consequently, and having lost one net already this month, I was concerned to find a member of the public from the nearby camp site trying to enter the reserve with two dogs off the lead via an adjacent field. I challenged him and pointed out that he was trespassing on land owned by South West Water and that there were livestock in the field his dogs were roaming around. I also pointed out that he was about to enter one of my net rides. The conversation was amicable and, to be fair, the dogs were not running around wildly but his explanation for his presence there staggered me. Having noticed no dog signs on all the gates leading into the reserve, he had searched the perimeter to find an alternative entrance without a sign, even if that meant unchaining a gate and trespassing on private property!
Devon Birds has a right of access to the reserve via the land it had to sell to SWW when the sewage treatment works was enlarged. Hopefully, the sign I installed on the gate will deter all but the most irresponsible dog owners in the future.
The middle of August is usually the busiest time of year at SML and with an easterly element in the breeze and few thunderstorms the previous night I was expecting great things. It seems that my understanding of the impact of the weather on migration patterns still has a long way to go and the site resembled the avian equivalent of the Marie Celeste. There was a complete absence of visible passage overhead with not a single hirundine, wagtail or pipit seen flying over all day. It seems that the only migrants reaching southern England at the moment have arrived on the Channel coast in inflatable boats.
On the ground Willow Warblers and Blackcaps were missing altogether and just two Sedge Warblers were trapped all day. There were conciliations in the form of the first Tree Pipit trapped this autumn and a single Garden Warbler, both tape-lured, but the blistering heat and high humidity made everything hard work and in the end I packed up early. Final totals were 37 new birds and one control Reed Warbler with a Slapton ring: 19 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 1 Garden Warbler, 2 Great Tit, 8 Reed Warbler, 1 Robin, 2 Sedge Warbler, 1 Tree Pipit and 3 Wren.