This is a blog which concentrates on the day-to-day bird ringing activities at South Milton Ley Nature Reserve, a 16 hectare reedbed in south Devon. The title reflects the fact that it takes me about an hour to drive to the site from my home and a further hour to set up all of the nets. This makes for some very early starts, particularly in the summer months!
If you stumbled across this website whilst looking for up to date information about the birds recorded here, at South Huish Reserve, South Efford Marsh, Thurlestone Bay or simply in the general area I recommend visiting Mike Passman’s excellent website: Thurlestone Bay Birds
Crest Ride, March 2018
A brief ridge of high pressure gave me a weather window to get some nets up after what seems like an endless procession of wind, rain and snow so far this year. In the event, it was hardly worth the effort with just six new birds and three recaptures. All of the wintering Chiffchaffs and Crests have either departed or perished during the snow and sub-zero temperatures at the beginning of month. I have already received details of a Goldcrest found dead at the neighbouring Mill Farm on 27th February, when overnight temperatures fell to -4oC and I’m sure many others will have succumbed in the days that followed when the South Hams was covered in snow.
On the brighter side, one of the recaptures was a Chiffchaff returning for the breeding season. Originally ringed in April 2016, this is the first returning Chiff to be caught this year. At least three other males were singing strongly in the hedgerows around the ringing area. Unusually, at least four Water Rails were calling between the sewage treatment plant and Marsh Ride. Wintering birds have normally departed by now and I am speculating whether this year’s unusually high water table has encouraged some birds to stay to breed. Water Rails have only been proven to breed at SML on one occasion (1989) but the species is occasionally heard during the spring and summer months. Whether these are breeding birds or summering non-breeders is unknown. Water Rails normally start incubating during the last week of March in the south of England so I’ll be keeping a lookout for any sign of breeding activity.
The first of three Siberian Chiffchaffs trapped on 26th January 2018
At last, a dry day with winds, which were low enough to get some nets up. In fact, at times in mid-morning it felt positively balmy. The sunny periods were enough to produce swarms of midges, whirling about in mating dances on the leeward sides of taller trees and a north-westerly breeze drifted them towards the net ride beside the sewage treatment plant. Things were looking good for decent numbers of Chiffchaffs. These midges are a major component of their winter diet, often turning their droppings black, when the midges are swarming. When the sun goes in the midges disappear and the warblers disperse making them harder to trap.
The second Siberian Chiffchaff
In the event, the morning’s tally of 47 birds included 30 Chiffchaffs, 4 Firecrests and 2 Goldcrests. Three of the Chiffchaffs showed all of the characteristics of tristis and two of them obligingly gave the characteristic short “peep” call when released.
A lovely day but not many birds. Just 14 new birds were ringed including: 5 Chiffchaff, 3 Firecrest, 2 Goldcrest and 1 Reed Bunting.
Also on site: another 20+ Chiffchaff, 1 Siberian Chiffchaff, 2 Redwing, 5 Water Rail, 1 Sparrowhawk, 1 Tawny Owl and 1 Great Spotted Woodpecker. There were 3 Hares in the middle of the field to the south of the reedbed and a weasel ran across the footpath by the sewage treatment works.
A break in the weather enabled the first of this year’s two winter reed cuts to go ahead as planned. The biting easterly wind and heavy waterlogged ground didn’t make things any easier for the thirty volunteers who turned up to help but the breeze certainly kept the bonfires going!
We packed up in the early afternoon, having cleared almost half a hectare.
Lower Marsh Ride on 3rd January 2018 – submerged under 1m of water
A series of deep depressions with associated high winds and rain, interspersed with brief quiet periods and heavy frosts have prevented any ringing at South Milton since the middle of December. However there have been benefits.
Storm Eleanor piled up an exceptionally high sandbar at the seaward end of the reserve and this barrier, coupled with high spring tides and a lot of water flowing from the catchment, has raised the water level in the reedbed and ditches. Nick Townsend and I visited today, to determine which areas of reedbed would be accessible for cutting next weekend, and we were able to make measurements of water depths and flows along the length of the reserve. The weight of entrained water subsequently breached the sandbar and it partially reformed over the next two days. Nick managed to make additional measurements over this period and we now have a series of observations relating the depth of water at the coastal footbridge to the extent and depth of water in the reedbed and ditches.
We have been working together with Natural England to produce a proposal to install control structures along the main drainage ditch in order to rectify the impacts of previous, over-enthusiastic ditching operations. A historical concern about a risk of flooding at Mill Lane, the eastern boundary of the reserve, has driven past management and we now have conclusive evidence that it is a lack of capacity in the culvert under Mill Lane, rather than the water level in our ditches, which has caused surface water flooding there in the past. The installation of up to three sluices would give us control over water levels in the eastern half of the reserve for the first time and should restore both the water table and gradients along and across the whole reserve with no effect on the flood risk at Mill Lane.
South Milton Stream pre 1991
The widened, deepened and straightened stream in 1994
The same view in December 2017 showing how far the water table has been lowered
Our intention is to raise the water level in the main ditch to something like this (taken on 3rd January 2018)
Siberian Chiffchaff, South Milton Ley, 18th December 2017
A glorious, sunny day at South Milton Ley. Just a little frost on the ground first thing and some ice on the mist net poles but very little breeze and almost perfect conditions for mist-netting. The numbers of wintering Chiffchaffs are beginning to build up around the Sewage Treatment Works with over thirty present, including at least one new Siberian Chiffchaff.
32 new birds were trapped including: 15 Chiffchaff, 1 Siberian Chiffchaff (the third tristis of the winter), 3 Goldcrest and 3 Reed Bunting. Also 1 UK control Blue Tit, 1 re-trap Cetti’s Warbler and 2 Firecrests present.
Siberian Chiffchaff, South Milton Ley, 5th December 2017
A forecast of low winds from the south, rather than the cold northerlies of the previous few days, tempted me out today. Winter looks to have arrived in earnest at South Milton Ley with the phragmites all turned brown, most trees without any leaves and, for the first time since the spring, not a sign of a dragonfly or butterfly. The hedgerows around the reserve have all been stripped of their berries and the thrushes have moved on.
Adult female Cetti’s Warbler, South Milton Ley, 5th December 2017
Ringing was slow but steady enough to stave off the cold. 29 new birds were trapped including: 13 Chiffchaff, (including the second tristis of the winter), 1 Firecrest, 5 Goldcrest, 1 Meadow Pipit, 1 Song Thrush. Also 1 UK control Goldcrest, 2 returning wintering Chiffchaffs and 2 re-trap Cetti’s Warblers.
Cetti’s Warbler – the only passerine in the UK with ten tail feathers rather than the usual twelve.
49 new birds ringed today including: 16 Chiffchaff, 3 Firecrest, 5 Goldcrest, 2 Reed Bunting, 5 Blackbird, 1 Sparrowhawk (1st year male), 4 Blue Tit, 10 Long-tailed Tit, 2 Robin and 1 Chaffinch. Not much else to report but at least 5 Water Rail around the ringing area and 30 Redwing out of a roost in the upper Ley first thing.
As I said in my last post, I have recently purchased some mist nets from Merlin Ringing Supplies. These are a lower-cost alternative to those available from other suppliers in the UK and, although I was primarily attracted by the price, I have used them regularly elsewhere without any issues and know them to be of reasonable quality. Rather than clog up these pages, I have prepared a more detailed Merlin Mist Net Review which might be of help to other ringers.
Another clear night with light winds and a heavy frost gave migrants little reason to drop into South Milton but at least the sight of Jupiter and Venus side by side on the eastern horizon brightened up my journey to the reserve. I have been gradually increasing the number of nets in use as the bird population is quite low at the moment and the bulk of the wintering Chiffchaffs have yet to arrive. This was the first outing for two new 18m nets, purchased from Merlin Ringing Supplies. More about them later.
36 new birds were ringed including 6 Goldcrest, 2 Firecrest, 2 Cetti’s Warblers (both females), 12 Chiffchaff, including the first Siberian Chiff of the winter and 1 Redwing. A Blue Tit with a UK ring was controlled. I’m sure it won’t have come far but it’s the first one I have trapped at SML with a ring I didn’t recognise.
Siberian Chiffchaff – South Milton Ley – 13th November 2017 (photographed in shade)
The same bird (photographed in sunlight)