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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.